A pristine first lady who kept it real

Former first lady Michelle Obama high-fives one of the young baseball players from Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities during her Let’s Move! campaign Left: A stone-faced Michelle at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Picture: Getty Images / Reuters
Former first lady Michelle Obama high-fives one of the young baseball players from Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities during her Let’s Move! campaign Left: A stone-faced Michelle at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Picture: Getty Images / Reuters

I found it odd that former US first lady Michelle Obama picked childhood obesity as one of the main causes to champion.

And I thought her fashion sense was pretty pedestrian. There, I said it.

Her Let’s Move! campaign required her to perform silly dances on TV talk shows.

The public message and marketing seemed to focus on the superficial – as if all that families needed to do to conquer this lifestyle disease was dance, and that eating and staying healthy had little to do with socioeconomic circumstances or big business.

The politics she chose – health and fitness – could have been taken on by anyone holding far less power than her position afforded her.

Childhood obesity appears to be the safest cause to opt for, given that it is about children.

I found the second aspect that the former first lady was lauded for – her sense of style – to be grossly exaggerated.

In US politics, the way in which a first lady dresses is the most important marker of her contribution to society.

And much praise was heaped on Obama for every sunny cardigan, A-line knee-length dress and thin belt combo she wore.

You would think she had the barrier-breaking fashion sense of Jamaican artist Grace Jones.

And, because of our fawning, we missed the true significance of her clothing choices – in her roomy skirts and manageable heels, Obama was coming to work as herself.

She entered the White House when the vision of power dressing was binding oneself in bodycon dresses – one-piece, figure-hugging dresses, for the uninformed – and scarily high heels.

Obama, in contrast, was dressing for comfort and practicality.

In one of his critiques of Barack Obama’s presidency, Gary Younge, editor at large at The Guardian, suggests that we have mostly been enamoured of the vision of the Obamas.

“For the past eight years, American liberals have gorged themselves on symbolism.

"A significant section of the population, including those most likely to support Barack Obama, have felt better about their country even as they have fared worse in it,” Younge writes.

Black people in particular see themselves more positively in the world just because the Obamas were leaders in it.

The mere sight of this black, good-looking and exceptionally educated presidential couple, with beginnings as humble as ours and high dreams, introduced new ideas about our potential.

I may seem to be besmirching the first lady’s legacy. Not so.

The power of the Obamas as a symbol can never be underestimated. As iconography, they have been a catalyst for change, and this I see mostly in cultural circles.

I see it in the diversity on TV and in the movies, in the black authors trickling their way into literary awards mentions and in the bare-knuckle nature of our racial debates globally.

The presence and ease with which the couple have engaged with everyone, pleb and celebrity alike, has made us love them more.

It has also pushed the Hollywoodisation of the US presidency into overdrive.

On a real political level, Younge argues that President Obama’s achievements were inadequate:

“The gap between rich and poor grew, Guantanamo is still open, the financial system that caused a crash remains intact...”

That is the track record of Barack Obama; Michelle, in her role, was merely an extension.

From early on, she knew to diminish her presence and take her place as one half of the untarnishable vision of black excellence – always pristine and prepared.

In her tribute to Michelle in the New York Times, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about how we projected our collective anxieties on her, “watching and willing her to be as close to perfection as possible … for the swathes of America that would rather she stumbled”.

As first lady, Michelle was trying to be palatable to the wider US public.

Perhaps this is why the internet reacted with surprised delight when Essence magazine released a new cover of the couple last year and we all realised that Mrs Obama, like most black women, had a big behind.

“No disrespect to the Queen and King, but Michelle got a fatty and Essence put it right up front LMAO,” as one Twitter user put it.

So, as she steps off the pedestal on which “she had to flatten herself to fit the mould of first lady”, in the words of Adichie, I am curious to find out what we will see coming out from under Michelle’s commanding face and stature.

Barack’s run of influence has come to an end, for what is greater than being the US president?

But I like to think, for Michelle, it is only beginning.

Follow me on Twitter @joonji


How would you describe the legacy of Michelle Obama?

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