So, what is is about Michelle Obama’s arms that’s inspired a national semi-obsession?
Everybody’s got a pair. Why are her’s so special? Well, there’s the obvious. Among women of a certain age and class – a class that doesn’t involve lifting anything heavier than a soy latte – toned arms are a status symbol. For mothers with children, firm delts say “enough money to pay a nanny and make time to go to the gym.”
Which is another way of saying “just like us” to that crowd, one that for better or worse, sets our cultural cues. Michelle Obama has managed to turn herself into a kind of every-woman who doesn’t inspire jealousy but, instead, admiration. This is, I suspect, the result of being a black woman in a mostly white world; you get used to managing your behavior and mien when you thoroughly understand that you’re almost always being evaluated on something you can never change – your gender or your skin color. If nothing else, the Obama family’s ability to shrewdly see themselves as they are seen by white America and to subtly change those perceptions is an accomplishment.
That’s not to set aside Obama’s charm and sincerity. Her speak-from-the-heart style rings true and her enthusiasm for her husband, for his presidency and for the wonder and fun of living in the White House strike all of us as pretty much how we’d feel: Obama says she’s got the best job in the administration and she’s not shy about why. No cooking? Great! No beds to make? Even better!
But that doesn’t really explain why Michelle Obama’s popularity has out-striped that of many movie stars and other pop culture figures. I mean lots of us are sincere. Even more of us hate the chores of domestic life. So what is it about this woman?
Well, first of all, she’s no girl. She may have a breezy style but most folks who deal with Michelle Obama realize that she’s not to be dismissed – those arms come from early morning work-outs before the kids (and the husband) get up. Even in her recent write-up of what was clearly a girlfriends’ lunch, the Washington Post Sally Quinn didn’t even bother to use that phrase. Quinn, who considers herself the gatekeeper of Washington “society”, has given Michelle Obama a pass – a courtesy she didn’t give the Clintons or George W. Bush family.
At nearly six feet tall, Obama’s also a direct contrast to an annoying American tendency to hew to a standard of “perfect beauty”. Throughout the past 10-year spree of conspicuous consumption, breast implants, lip plumping and assorted other cosmetic treatments were seen as necessary parts of any feminine beauty ritual that made for a uniform aesthestic. Time was – and I’m betting for sure these figures have already fallen – that breast augmentation was a popular birthday gift for 16-year-olds.
Michelle Obama’s a woman who was clearly never going down that path. She’s been known to tell fashion magazine what she’ll wear on their covers. She stands up straight, likes flat shoes and throws on a sweater when she’s cold. Which makes her style perfect style for our more realistic times. She seems about as likely to spend $5,000 on a handbag – and boast about it – as she is to curtsy before the Queen of England.
Which is really the key to her success, I think. Regular men and women have been looking for popular images of “real” women for a while. That’s to say, images of women who aren’t starving themselves to be a single-digit size, who aren’t obsessed with shopping, spa treatments and finding a boyfriend with a big salary to support them. Those Sex and the City characters thought of – wrongly – as the embodiment of a kind of “lipstick feminism” didn’t do much for equal pay for equal work. But they did a very good job of selling shoes, bags and designer clothes all the while encouraging women to know and understood their proper, decorative place in the glamorous urban world that is New York City.
That’s changing as well. There’s plenty of talk that The Great Recession may have finally evened out the earning power of men and women as women keep jobs that are part of a non-construction, non-manufacturing economy.
Michelle Obama’s salary carried her household while her husband was running for the U.S. Senate – he’s said so himself. And she’s clearly not a woman who was raised to look for someone to attend to her material comfort or someone who sets a standard for that comfort to include a clothes budget equal to a waitress’ annual salary. That, from where I sit is a good thing. Because it’s a realistic thing.
In a world where jobs come from thinking and typing – “symbol manipulation” as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich once called it – there shouldn’t be gender disparity on income because in a world where work is mental, not physical, your brain doesn’t need a firm set of biceps. Even if they do some in handy on those pesky photo shoots.