Much has been made in recent weeks about Michelle Obama’s well-toned arms. Some are even calling for her to cover up, saying it’s unbecoming of a first lady to show too much skin. Never mind Jacqueline Kennedy’s preference for going sleeveless, but in this instance, with this first lady— some would argue it’s too much. Or in the words of NY Times conservative columnist David Brooks, “she’s made her point” and it’s time to put them away. But by exposing her biceps, Michelle is sending a powerful message—and we ought to listen.
Michelle realizes that she has an incredible opportunity to smash stereotypes and challenge the prevailing negative images of black women. And if that makes some in the media and on the blogs uncomfortable—so what?
Like many black women, Michelle has had to tow the line in professional settings, knowing that an otherwise innocuous outfit on a white woman could easily raise eyebrows when worn by a woman of color. But Michelle has boldly and tastefully embraced her curves by donning form-fitting dresses that not only show that she’s serious about her workouts, but challenges the all too narrow perceptions of beauty that permeates our society, while at the same time, pushes the envelope of what some might deem appropriate for the nation’s first African American first lady.
Deftly described in the book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, black women have had to alter their speech, appearance, and behavior to conform to the majority culture. In many ways, Michelle, through her wardrobe selections, is saying, “Enough, I’m fighting back and being myself.” Michelle is not only a symbol of pride for black women who have struggled in the mornings with a suit that no longer seems to “fit right” after one wear—but for a nation and world of women who look nothing like the models in fashion magazines or department store ads.
But perhaps more importantly, Michelle Obama’s arms are a rallying cry for women, especially black women, to take better care of ourselves. African American women suffer disproportionately from obesity-related conditions including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. And far too many of us know from firsthand experience the devastating impact of chronic disease on our mothers, grandmothers, sister and aunts.
As someone on the front lines developing programs and messages to encourage black women to get physically active, eat better and make self-care a priority, Michelle Obama is a powerful role model, offering subtle support with her arms, for my work and that of the many advocates and health educators who care passionately about improving the health and wellbeing of black women. So if Michelle wants to show off her arms—I say more power to her—and to all of us.
There is no question, Michelle’s commitment to working out, work-life balance, and yes killer fashion-sense, has already inspired countless women to put their health first. I see the spike in visitors to one my previous blog posts on How Michelle Obama Stays Healthy, especially after a TV or public appearance, and know, like so many of us, our first lady is changing and saving lives. Women are actively seeking solutions and support to balance work and family responsibilities with the need to take time to care for our health. Michelle Obama’s arms remind us that if one of the busiest mothers in the world can make time for her health, so can we.