The female arm of the head of state

Like a kid in a candy store, journalists are salivating over Michelle Obama’s every utterance and action. From her championing of locally grown whole foods to her dual identities of mother and lawyer, the latest of the seemingly endless accolades are directed not at her brains or balanced life, but her biceps. The new first lady is a babe and is being hailed as “an inspiration to any women hitting the gym.” Pictured in every colour, cut and manner of sleeveless fashion, Mrs. Obama’s arms have the media squirming with indecision about how exactly to celebrate the unprecedented ability to throw the caption “the right to bare arms” anywhere near the photo of a Democrat.

And while the response remains positive, if not excessive, the hailing and hooting has been met with some disapproval. Some credible media personalities have suggested that the visibility of her athleticism is somehow less feminine, as if to say that while strong women are still to be held as the gold standard for upcoming generations of girls, the feminized variant of strength preferred by journalists and popular culture is one that is spontaneous or ad-hoc; a kind of strength that aggregates itself as a reactive force, rather than an enduring, unchallenged empowerment. In other words, female strength is ideally characterized solely as strength of character, while the image of muscularity is only tolerable in limited doses.

Fashion writers in New York, Los Angeles and London are all a little uncomfortable with this recent and increasing flash of buff arms– call it a revelation– that belong not to some pop starlet or Hollywood icon, but the traditionally ultra-docile, ultra-understated first lady. Though high fashion media takes no shame in policing what they deem to be deviant fashion choices, their open criticism of the appropriateness of Mrs. Obama’s decision to don sleeveless numbers at congressional and state events reflects only marginal interest in her clothes, taking implicit aim at her physique.

While I can respect that personal opinions regarding attractiveness remain just that– personal– I am not prepared to accept that a culture that hails itself as having progressive views about gendered body types and denies prescriptive imagery is still trying to cover up (pun intended) aesthetically manifested physical strength as a feminine quality. As evidence that I am not out to lunch (although I would like to know what Mrs. Obama fancies on her lunch plate) the comments of New York Times journalist David Brooks illuminate this very fact: “She’s made her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.” Is Brooks actually condemning Michelle Obama’s (or more likely, her stylist’s) decision to give women’s muscles a gentle push toward the mainstream? Perhaps more to the point, should we leave it to popular culture to instruct women and men as to which specific variant of fitness or fatness makes it acceptable to bear a certain appendage? While on the one hand, personal trainers are falling over themselves, marketing fitness programs that will deliver Obama-like arms, there are fashion conservatives who have no desire to expand the body image status quo to broaden the scope of beauty and femininity to the extent that gendered ideas of body can be left by the wayside. But it’s not like there is any more important news. I mean, aside from the superficial news about congressional hearings about executive bonuses, economic forecasting and foreign policy decisions.

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