Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Michelle Obama and Fashion: A Complicated Conversation

This month Harpers Bizarre features the top ten outfits worn by Michelle Obama in the past year.  In a world in which Black women are still not seen as beautiful, the elevation of Michelle has done much to reinforce a more feminine identity.  Black women have always struggled to have our womanhood validated. 

Many news stories have focused on Michelle Obama’s fashion.  When she was in France, the media worked up a mock fashion war between her and Carla Bruni.   This totally ignored the fact that they were talking about two incredibly accomplished women.  The erasure for Michelle Obama is particularly damaging.  Black women have always had to work hard.  When White women were trying to untie their apron strings, Black women had been employed for generations and already burnt out.

It is important to recognize that Michelle is not only beautiful but hardworking and extremely intelligent. If we ignore these other factors, we are not telling her whole story.  Barack is president because Michelle supported their family financially and raised the children largely by herself for years.  Michelle’s journey to the White House has not been an easy one.  Too many people forget that Michelle graduated with higher honours than her husband.

It is insulting to reduce Michelle Obama to the clothing that she wears and assume that this is elevation.  It is insulting to sit there and compare her to Jackie O, as though the two women have even one single thing in common.  Michelle may be the first lady but she comes to this position with the experience and life of an African American woman.

It seems that when it comes to Michelle, they don’t want to look outside of the cookie cutter pattern for covering first ladies.  She brings something to the office that no other woman before her ever has and this should be openly discussed.  If we are truly excited about the first African American FLOTUS, then why isn’t the media actively recognizing the difference between her and her predecessors? 

It seems that once again the monolithic woman wins out.  Though women share a gender, we all come at it differently.  Race, class, age, sexuality and ability must be considered because when we look through a single lens something important gets erased.  The media may not see the inherent racism in covering Michelle as they would any other FLOTUS, but then they have never been good at ensuring the African American experience gets the coverage it deserves.