Up in Arms: Judging a First Lady the Wrong Way

Puerto Rico Campaign 2008 Michelle Obama

For Mother’s Day (this past Sunday — hurry and send those belated cards, people!), Sally Quinn of the Washington Post brought the objectification of powerful women to new, dizzying heights: The Nation’s Embracing, and Embraceable, Arms

The laser-like focus on a First Lady’s body is nothing new. First Ladies who are young and conventionally attractive are held up as role models and breathlessly worshiped in conversation and print by members who sympathize with the party of that Lady’s husband; First Ladies who are dowdy, fat, older, or aren’t conventionally attractive are praised more for their programs or character, but tend to fade into the background or turn into fodder for late night talk show hosts (and these days, the comedic evening dailies).

However, the essay by Sally Quinn is, I think, a much more modern creation. Beauty has always been seen as a means to endow the lucky genetic accident with princess-like qualities, but today Healthism has pushed the idea of certain body type = moral superiority to a new, frightening level. That this is an essay espousing Michelle Obama’s role model status by turning her thin and toned arms into a symbol of the superior qualities of the Modern Female, implies that flabbier, less-toned, less youthful arms could not convey the same message of female strength and feministic advancement.

The conversation had been high-minded — religion, philosophy, the nature of evil…

…We then began a discussion about the significance of the first lady’s arms. Actually, it turned out to be equally serious. Michelle Obama’s arms, we determined, were transformational. Her arms are representative of a new kind of woman: young, strong, vigorous, intelligent, accomplished, sexual, powerful, embracing and, most of all, loving.

I can see how toned arms can imply youth, physical strength, and physical prowess. But strength of conviction, vitality, intelligence, ability, sexuality, kindness, and love? Certainly older women, or women with larger or non-toned arms, can have all of those qualities. Never for a moment when I used to lift weights did I think, “My arms look more toned now, I must be more intelligent/kind/able/loving!”

It truly is nonsensical and bizarre to claim that the shape of one’s arms can convey so much information about her moral character traits. And no, I think this went well beyond a simple symbolization in order to sell Mother’s Day copy about a popular mother in American culture at the moment. I think it is a symptom that, despite our liberal call for judging individuals based on their true character traits and not based on what they look like, we are, as a society, plunging ever deeper into the chasm of classifying character based on having the “right” body.

Individuals – especially women, but not exclusively – are invested with qualities they may or may not have, simply because of the way they look. Hence, Michelle Obama’s arms make her a “better” First Lady, woman, and mother, because they have a certain shape and circumference. She is endowed with greater qualities of character because of having the “right” kind of arms. By that same reasoning, women who don’t have those arms are ultimately worse women, mothers, role models, employees, students, and wives (“embracing,” “strong,” “accomplished,” “intelligent,” “loving”).

Ms. Quinn, you are sadly, quite wrong. And the kind of tripe you gush has nothing to do with feminism or praising Michelle Obama — it has everything to do with objectifying women and dehumanizing the First Lady. For shame.

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