Monday, January 26, 2009

Deconstructing Michelle Obama's arms

If you watched the inauguration last week, you likely had to hear all about Michelle Obama's fashion sense. We got regular updates on the designers she has worn as well as *gasp* off-the-rack clothing she sported during the campaign. And then there were the many comparisons to former first ladies.

But it was this statement from an article from WaPo that caught my attention*:

When she bounded onto the stage in her sleeveless dresses, with her muscular post-Title IX arms in full view, the definition of a strong woman changed.

My first reaction was my customary grumble at the term post-Title IX. How can we possibly be post-T9 when we don't have any equity.

But there's so much more going on in this statement. First, is Obama even a product of Title IX? I cannot seem to find any indication that she played sports as a youngster--correct me if I am wrong! Her brother is a basketball coach and her family vetted Barack Obama by playing pick-up with him; but there's nothing about Michelle being able to make a sweet 3-pointer, or a diving save, or a triple lutz.

So where did she get her arms? The gym. She's known for early morning intense workouts. This isn't a judgment. It's a point, that I feel, frequently goes unmentioned and ties into this apparently new definition of a strong woman. There are plenty of strong women who play and have played sports. And there are plenty of strong women who have never played sports. And there are women in both these categories who do not meet this definition of the "new" strong woman.

Because there is a limit to just how strong a woman can be. Michelle Obama and her arms fall within the limits of acceptable feminine strength. Likely because she follows a weight routine that emphasizes muscle toning over muscle mass-making. Because there is still the fear today, I hear it all the time, about becoming " too bulky." Look around your gym, you will see a lot of arms that resemble Michelle Obama's. A former professor of mine called them "soccer mom biceps." They are very nice. They are certainly more built and toned than many women's arms of years past. But again, they are acceptable for a woman to have. If they were not, we would have been talking about Michelle Obama's arms a long time ago.

As it is the current conversation (as one-sided as it is right now) is bordering on worrisome because of the way the article invoked Obama's physicality. The "bounding" Obama resembles some of the problematic discourse around black athletes, including black female athletes. I have read, of course, far more overt animalistic references and Delia Douglas has a great article on this topic. It may look like I am being especially sensitive, but I think we need to interrogate these moments.

Why that word? Why the focus on her arms? And more broadly, why does post-T9 seem to equal "feminist"? Can we not say the word feminist? Can we not refer to the First Lady as a feminist, instead referring to her as "strong"?

I guess we'll have to wait and see how some of these questions play out. Maybe Michelle Obama and her post-Title IX arms will make an appearance when Candace Parker goes to the White House for a pick-up game, and we'll get some answers.

*It actually caught my sister's attention and then had mine for many hours; so h/t to kan-s.