First Lady Got Back

I read an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times a few days ago and that was the title. It originally ran on Salon.com and was written by Erin Aubry Kaplan, who introduces the piece saying, “I'm a black woman who never thought I'd see a powerful, beautiful female with a body like mine in the White House. Then I saw Michelle Obama -- and her booty!”

Kaplan’s essay isn’t just fluff. It delves into areas such as the fetishization of the African-American woman’s behind throughout history, and the lack of attainable body image ideals for black women in today’s society. Her ultimate point is that Michelle Obama, a beautiful, statuesque woman with curves for days, is ushering in a new beauty norm. She looks nothing like any First Lady before her, and rather similar to many of our black friends, family members and coworkers. Kaplan discusses the frequent comparisons between Obama and Jackie Kennedy and writes, “While I appreciate the spirit, I beg to differ. To put it bluntly, Jackie had no back. Same can be said for gaunt Cindy McCain and the short-lived Republican sexpot Sarah Palin. Jackie was trim and perfect, an inoffensive figure who bucked the curviness of the '50s and put American femininity on the treacherous path of smaller-is-better. Jackie was also a blue blood and a society woman -- an elite! -- so although she set new beauty and fashion paradigms, she also followed old ones.”

Sir Mix-A-Lot references aside, this is an interesting discussion but part of me wonders, is it necessary? The Obamas aren’t even on Pennsylvania Avenue yet but already there are articles springing up about HER BUTT?? Is this necessary?

I don’t deny the importance of the topic in general –hello, I’m a body image writer myself! Discussing ethnic and cultural differences in body acceptance is a fascinating topic. And the fact is, as Kaplan writes, “ordinary black women have waited a long time for this… In a country simultaneously obsessed with consumer excess and weight control, we've been caught in the middle. Throw race into the mix, and we've been downright strangled. The expectations run something like this: It's OK for black women to be heavier than most, but we still have to conform to a universal (that is, white) standard of thinness and shape. This means that, even if you're 120 pounds, your butt better not account for more than 2 percent of that.”

I suppose I just never thought about the fact that Michelle will be representing a brand new physical aesthetic, one that hasn’t been filled in such a manner in…well, ever. The First Lady WILL look different than any other First Lady and many, many young women across the globe will have a new role model to look up to. But not JUST because of her body – because she is strong and accomplished and capable and a straight-shooter.

And yes, I suppose, because she’s got a great boot-ay.

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