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Keli Goff

Keli Goff

Posted: March 11, 2009 11:26 AM

Michelle Obama: Wonder Woman

What's Your Reaction?

As if there hasn't been enough written about Michelle Obama's arms please allow me to be the one-millionth writer, blogger, journalist, pundit to weigh in with an opinion (like just about every florist, dentist, minister, accountant and any other human being living in America, including my mom.)

One of the things that has struck me most about the
coverage of "Sleevegate" is how no one seems to have really delved into what I consider to be the fashion elephant in the room in any discussion of Michelle Obama's wardrobe choices: namely that she's not only tall and muscular, but she's a tall, muscular, brown-skinned black woman. I bring this up only because being a tall, brown-skinned (although not that muscular) black woman myself I've found that it does matter.

I'm sure that there are already a few of you now rolling your eyes and saying skeptically "what does Michelle Obama's style have to do with race?" but please just bear with me for a moment.

Here's the thing. For black women working to succeed in the corporate world or the world of politics (in which the critics can be even tougher) there are a few realities we must contend with that many of our racial counterparts rarely do; the most significant being what I like to call the intimidation fashion factor.

What is that exactly?

The intimidation fashion factor can most easily be explained by asking all of you to answer the following question: How many of you would feel comfortable if you walked into your office tomorrow and every black woman there was wearing her hair in an afro? What about dreadlocks? If you answered that question honestly the fact is you would probably be surprised and many in your office -- including perhaps your boss -- might feel downright uncomfortable. Though they might hesitate to say so outright, there would likely be concern about what message such an image might send and what clients or customers may think (unless of course your clientèle or customer base is primarily African-American).

Just two years ago an editor at a major fashion magazine labeled afros a fashion "don't," (though the fallout from the incident is said to have cost her job.) But while there may have been fallout the reality is that most black women striving to succeed in the mainstream workforce do feel compelled to go to great lengths not to wear our hair natural, i.e. in all its fro glory. Instead we endure the inconvenient and often painful process known as relaxing (or what we like to call "getting a perm.") I say "we" because I endure it too, and from what I can tell so does our First Lady, and one day so will the First daughters.

So I ask you to consider for a moment, how well do you think Michelle Obama would have fared on the campaign trail had she been rocking an au-natural hairstyle, a la the infamous New Yorker cover (and I don't mean the latest one.)

See there is something about blackness that remains inherently intimidating for some. This is why for so much of the campaign the Obama team was bending over backwards to convince heartland voters that Michelle Obama was really a Brady-bunch-watching-all-American mom, just like them. For many voters that image just didn't compute with the tall, chiseled, brown-skinned woman with all those fancy degrees. In their eyes if you looked up intimidating in the dictionary you would see Michelle Obama's face with a capital "I."

Which brings me back to the arms. For all of those obsessed with sleevegate I ask you to consider the First Lady's fashion options. Aside from the fact that she really does have great arms, consider this: How warmly do you really think the president's 5 foot 11 inch, brown-skinned, Ivy-league, power-lawyer wife would have been received had she spent most of the last two years on the campaign trail, and now in the White House, wearing Hillary Clinton power pants suits? Or even Laura Bush suits, for that matter, on a regular basis?

The fact is that dressed up as her alter ego "Michelle Obama: Legal Eagle/Corporate Wonder Woman" she probably would have scared a lot more voters -- and media critics -- than she ever has with her arms (ahem, David Brooks). And I doubt that she would be receiving the media equivalent of a valentine from the likes of CNN's Jack Cafferty.

In her classic Jackie O sleeveless sheath dresses I think the First Lady has found a way to combine power and femininity, AND to convey strength without intimidating the hell out of much of white America -- a balancing act so impressive she could teach tightrope walkers in the circus a thing or two.

And in doing so, she's given those of us in her sisterhood of the traveling perms, an extra reason to smile.

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