SEVERE WX : Red Flag Warning - Freeze Warning View Alerts
STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

The secret to Michelle Obama's 'most admired' status

Polls now confirm it! Michelle Obama is the country's ...

Posted: Jan 2, 2019 5:37 AM
Updated: Jan 2, 2019 5:37 AM

Polls now confirm it! Michelle Obama is the country's most admired woman. This recognition is about much more than looks, but they play a part.

In her record-setting memoir "Becoming," Mrs. Obama confesses to having been initially frustrated by the public's interest in her appearance as first lady. "It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say," she explains. Over time, she found ways to make an asset of what she calls the "hawkeyed attention paid to my image."

Michelle Obama

Political Figures - US

African Americans

Beauty and personal care

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Demographic groups

Females (demographic group)

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Minority and ethnic groups

Politics

Population and demographics

Society

US federal government

White House

The decisions Michelle Obama made in creating her public persona reveal how carefully she had to navigate a cultural landscape determined to confine women, especially women of color. Her facility for navigating racism and sexism has always drawn admiration from some Americans, especially black women, because their experiences at school, work and other realms have required the same of them.

Now, a larger swath of Americans has recently joined in this admiration. Perhaps witnessing the ascendency of Donald Trump's first family has led even the most skeptical to conclude that the "polarization" attributed to the Obamas always said more about the public than about them.

Mrs. Obama constructed her public image through such things as gardening and a commitment to military families and education, but because her time in the White House was also shaped by the public's interest in her looks, it was her hair choices that proved especially telling. And its importance cannot be underestimated.

As noted in "Becoming," FLOTUS is "not technically a job, nor is it an official government title." Nevertheless, the nation expects a first lady to represent American womanhood and inspire all women to identify with her. Because Mrs. Obama always wore her hair straightened and in a medium-length bob while in the White House, women of all backgrounds could ask their stylists to approximate the look, which was not particularly elaborate.

If Mrs. Obama's hair had been kinky or coily -- terms used to describe the unstraightened hair texture of African- Americans -- or if it had been braided or locked, women of other racial or ethnic backgrounds may not have easily aspired to and achieved her style. One black woman -- even if she was the first lady -- was not going to spark a trend of white women requesting super-tight curly perms.

Given Western beauty standards, it was much more expedient for Mrs. Obama to wear her hair straight and therefore avoid having the majority of non-black women hesitate to consider whether they could achieve the first lady's look.

And even more than the question of achievability, was the question of acceptance. Many Americans would simply not be welcoming to natural hair in the White House. After all, in 2016 a federal court essentially ruled that approximating white people's hair makes one more qualified for jobs. The message that straight hair makes one "professional" and "appropriate" is constantly sent to black women and girls.

What would have happened if Michelle Obama had decided to wear an "ethnic" style? Americans did not find out. Mainstream standards are too rigid to be tested by a woman whose job is to be accepted as a representative of US womanhood.

And, make no mistake, representing American womanhood meant that she was held to standards that created a no-win situation. Some feminist critics insisted that focusing on Mrs. Obama's beauty and fashion choices was trivial, but this was easy to say because she made the "right" choices.

If Michelle Obama had worn dreadlocks or even a modest afro, her hair would have likely suddenly ceased to be a trivial topic among these purportedly progressive critics. I dare say it may have become a national security concern, because when black women don't seem to be trying to meet mainstream standards of beauty, they are sometimes assumed to be resisting "the American way."

In other words, it would have somehow confirmed the fears that cartoonist Barry Blitt caricatured for the cover of The New Yorker in July 2008, which showed Mrs. Obama with an afro and wearing combat gear, fist-bumping her husband beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden.

Even while encouraging non-black women to identify with her, Michelle Obama's public persona also accounted for the messages black women received. Though she did not have dreadlocks or wear her hair in twists or braids, there was always the possibility that her hair was "natural," or free of chemical straightening -- known as a relaxer.

Indeed, whether FLOTUS had a relaxer or not seemed to be a guarded secret. Since stepping into the public eye as her hair stylist in 2008, Johnny Wright did not answer questions about whether her hair was chemically processed. This began changing in 2014. Wright finally confirmed that Mrs. Obama hasn't chemically relaxed her hair since 2009, but this was only after a photo of Mrs. Obama wearing her natural hair went viral in 2017. The Internet, especially women of color, rejoiced while also noting that it made sense that she had not appeared this way in public as first lady.

By straightening her hair while occupying the White House, but also leaving open the possibility that it was natural, Mrs. Obama affirmed both black women who wear their hair straight and those who do not.

Since the "black is beautiful" movement of the 1960s, natural hair has been associated with self-love and self-esteem. Even while complying with what most Americans (and American courts) consider "professional" and "appropriate," Mrs. Obama avoided tampering with the idea that natural hair, for many black women, is the more loving choice.

As FLOTUS, Mrs. Obama's public persona demonstrated awareness that she was not free to go natural (conspicuously) but also that she was not willing to capitulate completely. The particular secret she kept created more flexibility for other black women, not less.

This is important because a prominent African-American woman's choices are so easily used against ordinary black women in their everyday lives. By keeping space open for black women, Michelle Obama's public persona demonstrated that she found them relevant. Black women mattered to this first lady.

Now that she's out of the White House, she can fully embrace her status as an extraordinary woman. As she continues to promote public health, for example, she is no longer Mom-in-Chief doing so, but a former medical center executive.

Likewise, as the shimmering, golden Balenciaga boots she wore to a recent appearance in Brooklyn attest, she need not shy away from glamor by foregrounding her appreciation of the middle-class, attainable fashion of J. Crew and White House Black Market. I don't think we'll ever see that modest bob again.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 41739

Reported Deaths: 653
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Multnomah9055160
Marion5733108
Washington568175
Umatilla334444
Clackamas308165
Lane232627
Malheur190938
Jackson16506
Deschutes111013
Yamhill98515
Linn79815
Polk64815
Jefferson6039
Morrow5436
Lincoln51513
Union4652
Benton4366
Klamath4083
Wasco34715
Douglas3455
Hood River2771
Josephine2633
Columbia2561
Clatsop2410
Coos2360
Baker1143
Crook1032
Tillamook700
Curry571
Wallowa422
Lake340
Harney230
Sherman180
Gilliam110
Grant110
Wheeler10
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 903684

Reported Deaths: 17343
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2989376989
Riverside657571279
San Bernardino623531072
Orange583261444
San Diego54314868
Kern33775416
Fresno30590436
Sacramento25264484
Santa Clara24014388
Alameda23215460
San Joaquin21630489
Contra Costa18523241
Stanislaus17572396
Tulare17495286
Ventura14192164
Imperial12700336
San Francisco12069140
Monterey1132189
San Mateo11075159
Santa Barbara9760120
Merced9465155
Sonoma9163134
Kings821883
Solano728674
Marin7057128
Madera498174
San Luis Obispo414132
Placer408857
Yolo316658
Butte305952
Santa Cruz277125
Napa194215
Shasta184630
Sutter183712
San Benito143615
El Dorado13154
Yuba129310
Mendocino112421
Tehama8628
Lassen7661
Lake68915
Glenn6573
Nevada6088
Humboldt5629
Colusa5506
Calaveras34218
Amador32416
Tuolumne2684
Inyo22715
Siskiyou1930
Del Norte1781
Mono1782
Mariposa782
Plumas680
Modoc290
Trinity260
Sierra60
Alpine30
Unassigned00
Medford
Clear
58° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 58°
Brookings
Clear
62° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 62°
Crater Lake
Clear
39° wxIcon
Hi: 42° Lo: 18°
Feels Like: 33°
Grants Pass
Clear
59° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 59°
Klamath Falls
Clear
39° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 14°
Feels Like: 33°
Critical fire danger today
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events