When it happened for the third time, I had just finished a quarter-mile swim at the local pool. My hairline was branded with the imprint of my swim cap, my bloodshot eyes looked like peppermints, and I was hunched next to the "Slow Lane" sign catching my breath with a cacophony of gasps and coughs. Nearby, a 60-year-old in a small navy swimsuit had folded himself into some sort of bridge pose on the concrete, supporting his arched body with bony shoulders and the back of his head. It was like watching a scantily clad Santa Claus doing experimental yoga. And then he started to speak. "Excuse me," he began, and I worried that he'd caught me staring. "Has anyone ever told you that you look like Michelle Obama?"
Well, actually, yes. There was the tech entrepreneur who, somewhere between bites of orecchiette at a group dinner in San Francisco, leaned his face into the space above my shoulder and purred that she and I "could be twins." And I can't forget the effusive older woman who cornered my fiancé and me at a New Year's party and gushed that we looked "just like Barack and Michelle" before excusing herself to find the steamed lobster. So no, standing there with this strange man at the pool was not the first time I'd heard it. But there was one small problem: for better or worse, I know what I look like--after all, I see myself every day. And the truth is, I look about as much like Mrs. Obama as I look like Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. (Which means, sadly, that I'm 0-for-2.)
Michelle Obama is one of the most beautiful women in the world. She's like a benevolent Pied Piper with a fabulously decorated flute, strutting in kitten heels as enchanted admirers mimic her every step. Legions are mesmerized by her height, her hair, her workout, her wardrobe, her articulacy, her aura of nonchalant ability. And aside from the facts that 1) I'm African American 2) I'm 5'9'' and 3) I'm training for a triathlon so maybe my arms are a little more defined than usual, I have none of these things. But over the last few months, I've heard the flattering yet flabbergasting words, "You look like Michelle Obama," more than once.
And, it turns out, I'm not the only one. Utterly confused after the encounter with Bikram Santa, I started asking around. Of the 30 professional, well-educated African American women I spoke to around the country, more than one-third had been told at some point that they favored Mrs. Obama--regardless of facial features, hairstyles, skin tones, and even height. (My friend Nicole--an Atlanta-based lawyer who is 5'2''--once had a client insist she looked just like the first lady, even though she is almost nine inches shorter.)
And while the people who made the comparisons varied in age, gender and ethnicity, their words were universally intended as a premium--if accidentally perplexing--compliment. "I hear it all the time--my husband thinks it's a stranger's way of saying you are savvy and attractive," says Camille, a lawyer living in Maryland who has been stopped mostly by Caucasians. "Michelle Obama is so pretty, but we don't look alike. I usually say thank you, but I know I have this look on my face that says, 'Can you see?!'" My friend Angela, who has a master's degree in applied psychology and lives in Nashville, was thrilled when she heard it from three different African Americans within two weeks. "I don't believe it, but it is flattering," she says. "It's the highest compliment you can give to black women right now!"
And sometimes, it's even more than that. For a subset of enterprising and often visually inept men, "You look like Michelle Obama" is not just a compliment; it's the 2009 version of "Do you come here often?" A pick-up line based on a political spouse is hard to imagine, but Jill, a professor outside Chicago who describes her style as "J.Crew with a twist," says she's been on the receiving end of this first lady-inspired flirtation everywhere from faculty lounges to family restaurants. "I've heard it from a lot of male professionals in their 30s up to their 50s, black and white," she says. "They'll say, 'Michelle is an attractive sister,' and tell me they think I'm fashionable like she is. I know I don't look like her. I almost feel like they'd say it to any tall, black, educated woman who dressed nicely."
According to Dr. Kimberly R. King, an associate professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, Jill--who recently got hair extensions past her shoulders in hopes that the attention would die down--might be onto something. King says people tend to amplify similarities between the individuals they encounter in real life and the ideas that they have in their minds. "If some men have a certain perception of what Michelle Obama is like and they see another black woman," she says, "they may have a tendency to perceive that this woman will also be like Michelle Obama." And such inference can lead to impertinence: One twentysomething became so enamored with Jill after deciding she looked like the first lady that he began following her around, pretending to bump into her unexpectedly all over campus. "He started stalking me!" she says, laughing. "I would see him everywhere, which made me extremely uncomfortable. I had to stop eating at my favorite sandwich shop out of fear."
Hunger pangs aside, King says there are other ways in which this trend can be problematic. "It is usually a stranger's way of making a compliment, but it is also a way of stereotyping, not recognizing differences," she says. Much like the time a well-intentioned Joe Biden gushed about Barack Obama's articulacy and cleanliness, a person automatically comparing intelligent or well-spoken black women to the first lady may inadvertently be suggesting that it is rare for black women to be smart. "So if someone is savvy or has other positive qualities," says King, "she must be like Michelle Obama--a rare black woman--rather than being like herself."
But, perhaps most interestingly, it turns out that the comparisons can also be colorblind. As the only black woman in her office, Shanda, a Washington D.C.-based engineer, is told that she resembles the first lady all the time. But her coworkers, who are mostly white and Asian, happily say it to each other as well. "They'll say, 'Your hair looks very Michelle Obama,' 'That dress is very Michelle Obama,' or even, 'You have the whole Michelle Obama look going on,'" she says. "She encompasses so much that people find something to take from her and match with someone else as a compliment. I don't get [compared to] Michelle Obama just because I'm black. The women here say it to each other so often that race doesn't even matter, which I find fascinating."
Maybe, then, that is the lesson: Could it be that the widespread fascination with all things Michelle Obama--her impeccable educational and career backgrounds, her palpable love and affection for her family, her uncanny ability to connect with all sorts of people--has somehow made the rest of us shine a bit brighter? In many ways, her ascent to the top of both political circles and pop culture has redefined what the American mainstream considers cool. And perhaps black women in particular should rejoice in the notion that one of the most influential women in the world looks a little more like us...
Just maybe not as much as people think.