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.

On Weddings and Women and Weight (oh, my!)

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In a week I’m going to be a married lady.

I’m looking forward to the ceremony, and the reception, seeing people I haven’t seen in a while, and getting family members together who haven’t seen each other in a while.

However, I’m not wrapped up in my wedding as if it were some peak of my youth, or a day which will transform me into some new “wifey” creature I have yet to meet. This is despite the (still, in this modern age) drumbeat that weddings are, for young women, as meaningful and final as death (it’s no coincidence that many classic novels featuring women end in marriage or death). Heck, I’ve been living with my fiancee for two years now, we have a mortgage and a cat, it’s not like much will change once we get married.

Marriage ceremonies, for many, center around a fundamental objectification of a woman.  Marriage is the ultimate day of triumph for a lady and her family, and hence much moola is invested in making the day a huge bash, and dressing up the women and their friends, meant to convey that the woman is a valuable, worth-while wife, as our current culture still defines her.

The ritual is, in fact, centered around making the bride appear as if she has high value, within the strictures of how value is defined in our modern times. This is from where the tradition of the parents of the bride paying for the wedding stems (it is a symbol of her dowry, which, most of the time, was the only monetary value with which a woman came into her married life). Also, the appearance of the woman herself must be that of a valuable object. One can’t convey to one’s family that one’s future bride has a math masters and a great singing voice and is kind to children and that is her true value: no, all the family will see is a woman in white, parading her body down an aisle.

Given the current Healthistic trend and the moral value invested in the width of a woman’s hips or the circumference of her upper arm, one can be damn well sure that the sense of the value of the bride will be, for many family members, tied into those numbers. Many a wedding I’ve attended has featured snarking about the bride: “Oh man, she shouldn’t have chosen spaghetti straps, really,” or “Oh man, she’s really spilling out…strapless?” or “I bet they won’t do the garter ceremony with her!” or “She really should have done something about those arms before the wedding.” And so forth.

So much value can be placed in, and so many assumptions can be made, from the appearance of the woman alone. And for many women, it is the one day they will be on display like no other, where all eyes will be on them, eyes of people who do not know much about the bride except how she looks. Given women are aware of how much value is place in their “numbers,” it can make even sensible ladies throw their sense out the window and try that liquid diet, or put their personal lives in jeopardy in order to get another hour at the gym. Even more sensible family members and friends can be sympathetically oppressive, suggesting the bride change her eating habits or exercise, making not-so-subtle hints about the way in which the dress fits. Silence is also telling: your mother and attendant are silent as you model your dress, saying weakly how it looks good, while the mother and attendant of the thinner girl gush about how she could “be in bride magazines,” etc.

30 lbs, the magical amount of weight for any bride-to-be to lose, can turn the lead-up to a wedding from stressful time filled with planning into a veritable nightmare. The day of the wedding the bride, hanging on to her most prized asset — her weight loss — greets friends and families through a starvation-induced haze. For what? So that she is not judged harshly by the possible (probable) bigot in their midst. She reinforces that a woman’s value is tightly wrapped up in the shape and circumference of her body parts, like an animal to be sold to the highest bidder.

What’s the point of this? The point is to bring attention to how harmful and damaging such a “wonderful” day can be for a woman, when it is the day she is told she must treasure as one of the best in her life. In order to be worthy of such a day, she is told, she must starve, sweat, whittle down, and loathe her body. The sum of a sufficient amount of torture and self-loathing, she is told, is one day she can rest on her laurels, since she will find her self-worth — at long last — in the approving gaze of strangers.