In her first hundred days as First Lady, Michelle Obama has worn her hair mostly in a sleek page-boy, but also occasionally gently waved and upswept. Johnny Wright, the 31-year-old stylist from Frederic Fekkai's West Hollywood salon, who was anointed Michelle's exclusive hairdresser three months ago, has experimented a bit with the White House supermodel, giving her bangs for an appearance in Prague during the G20 Summit and a half up-do for her meeting with Queen Elizabeth.
What Wright hasn't and will never give Michelle, however, are twists, braids, ringlets, dreadlocks, or any other African-American style. Michelle hasn't worn her hair natural since she was a school girl. Only once on a vacation to Jamaica during her college years, did she wear braids, according to friends.
In Chicago, where until last January Michelle had lived her entire life with the exception of college and law school, most professional black women straighten their hair. Ethnic hair can be misinterpreted as defiant or militant, "and you don't want to do anything that's going to put you in a position where people can criticize you," says Laura Washington, an African-American journalist. "I know women who've been fired from their jobs for wearing fros, also locks and braids." It's considered a violation of professional dress codes, tantamount to wearing shorts in the office.
A noted exception is Carole Brown, the Harvard educated financial expert, who succeeded Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett as board chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority. Her braids, which once cascaded around her shoulders but are now cut short, have caused not a stir in the press or the blogosphere. The trains and buses still run (sort of) on time.
But Carole Brown is not the First Lady. "It would be asking a lot of the American public," to accept Michelle in ethnic hair, says Michael "Rahni" Flowers, who did Michelle's hair for 28 years, from the time she graduated from high school through the inauguration. "People assume it means something, when you have natural hair. It means militancy. It means defiance."
Most professional black men wear their hair like President Obama's in an extremely short, non-descript style that requires little care.
Black women, meanwhile, undergo time consuming, costly hair rituals. The First Lady is no different. Almost every week since she was eighteen, until she moved into the White House last January, Michelle visited Flowers' Van Cleef Salon on Chicago's Gold Coast for a wash and styling. Every six weeks during those years, Flowers straightened her hair. She continued to visit him throughout the campaign and even after the election before moving to D.C. It was Flowers who changed the flip Michelle wore at the start of the presidential race to the smooth look she now favors, because the flip was too hard for her to maintain between salon visits.
Flowers showed Michelle how to wrap her hair around her head and cover it with a scarf at night to keep its sleek shape. "In the morning, she could comb it out, and it would be nice and smooth," he said.
After the inauguration (for the festivities Flowers not only did Michelle's hair but also her mother's and daughters' hair) the 54-year-old stylist, declined to give up his venerable Chicago salon, where many of the city's most prominent black women get their hair done, to move to D.C. Johnny Wright then took over as the First Lady's hairdresser.
If Michelle wore her hair ethnic, adds an African-American friend from her Princeton days, "she'd get attacked. She'd get appreciation, too, mainly from black women, but she'd get attacked for not looking the part. She also would be criticized generationally, regardless of race, so older black people would complain too, because it's too ethnic and not professional. A lot of black people have internalized this white standard of beauty, so they would lay into her."
Even with her straightened, non-ethnic hair, Michelle is changing how whites look at black women. What is perhaps most exciting about the new First Lady is not that she's the black Jackie Kennedy, but that she's freeing us from Jackie's polished perfection - an ideal based on white, European notions of beauty and elegance.
Michelle's love of vivid color, bold prints, strong accessories and striking make-up, and her eagerness to wear frocks by young immigrant designers is a kind of apotheosis of African-American style, though to some blacks her style seems muted.
"We tend to wear bold color more than other women because we don't look so hot in pastels," says Michelle's Princeton friend. "So maybe Michelle's color palette seems bold, but compared to what?"
The pale mainstream, of course.
While white people have fallen in love with Michelle for many of the right reasons - her intelligence, compassion, strength, humor and uncynical sense of moral duty - their adulation also allows them to congratulate themselves on their enlightened ideas about race: Here is a dark-skinned African-American woman with classic black features, and we relate to her totally! She's black, and she's one of us.
But would white America feel the same about her, if she let her hair "out" -- that is, wore it natural?
To me, the most offensive aspect of The New Yorker 's July 28, 2008 cover depicting the Obamas as White House terrorists, was the immense afro on Michelle. More than the soon-to-be First Couple's fist bump, or even the assault rifle strapped to Michelle's back, meant to satirize right wing criticism of the Obamas, it signaled the kind of sixties radicalism which passed out of the world with Huey Newton and Malcolm X.
And, yet, when I recently came across a picture of Michelle as a Princeton undergraduate sporting what looked to me like an afro, it intrigued me. I read into her hair a maverick spirit, a willingness to look ethnic in a sea of white preppies. It was the early eighties, a time when African-American college students ironed their jeans and wore collared shirts and twin sets, and in general looked neater and more pulled together than their non-black peers. "It was just the way we were brought up. It had to do with the respectfulness with which you presented yourself," recalls Michelle's Princeton friend.
She insisted the do wasn't a fro, but rather the African-American version of the puffy, heavily layered look popularized at the time by Charlie's Angels star Farrah Fawcett.
But when I showed Flowers, who wears a seventies style afro, the picture, he said, "It looks kind of fro-y to me. A relaxed fro, but a fro none-the-less."
We agreed that Michelle looked adorable. Said Flowers, "Maybe in the next four years she can try something like that."