Is Michelle Obama's Playful & Pragmatic Nature Too Heavily Scrutinized?
The first lady, like others before her, is always under the microscope
Recent polls prove that Michelle Obama is more popular than her husband, the president himself, Barack Obama.
While only 54 percent of Americans viewed her as favorable during the 2008 presidential election, that rating has jumped to 66 percent in the years since. Michelle Obama has become the most-televised first lady in history, releasing her own gardening book, launching the Joining Forces initiative to provide job opportunities and support to service members and their families and, of course, creating a platform to fight childhood obesity with the Let's Move campaign.
However, despite her expanding appeal, media and mass audiences have found a misstep in every success. "Hungry" kids slam her low-calorie school lunches; her bare arms mean she isn't "dressing her age"; her excessive hugs, given in an attempt to be 'less intimidating,' make eyes roll; and her appearance on the cover of Vogue magazine, likely dressed in expensive designer clothing, left White House aides feeling as if she were insensitive to the economic plight of others.
Additionally, one Virginia-based voter recently declared her "far from a first lady" saying, "It's about time we get a first lady in there that acts and looks like a first lady. Can you imagine the Kennedys or the Bushes doing push-ups on the floor? She's more about showing her arms off. I think that's very inappropriate for a lot of functions that she goes to. You see her walking around in shorts, just real casual wear."
Once lauded, is Michelle's down-to-earth nature—now more exposed than ever during her husband's re-election campaign—being rightfully scrutinized?
Robert Watson, professor of American studies at Lynn University and author of "The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady," finds any backlash to be unwarranted.
"It's Mrs. Obama’s 'informality' that has allowed her to connect with children at her plant-a-garden events or physical fitness events," Watson said. "Women all across the country can relate to her shopping for dresses off the rack at stores commonly found at the mall. So, there is something more going on here than people being uncomfortable with informality. She's not in a bikini swimming."
Indeed, Michelle Obama has not shied away from wearing inexpensive fashions from J. Crew and H&M while making public appearances—save for a pair of $540 Lanvin sneakers worn while volunteering at a food bank.
Though former first lady Laura Bush maintained significantly higher approval ratings during the years her husband was president than Mrs. Obama has, the numbers don't seem to speak to the belief that Mrs. Bush set a standard that should be honored, held and met. Myra Gutin, professor of communication at Rider University and the author of "The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century," said there is no such exemplary model and all first ladies have been subject to similar scrutiny.
"I've been studying American first ladies for over 30 years, and I have yet to learn how a first lady is supposed to look or act," Gutin said. "There are no standards engraved in stone. Florence Harding invited a medium to the White House to tell her the future. Bess Truman enjoyed a martini. Jacqueline Kennedy smoked, and she was criticized for arriving at mass one Good Friday in Palm Beach, Florida, with bare legs and sandals—no hosiery, imagine!"
Watson added, "Jackie Kennedy often went sleeveless and Mrs. Carter wore the same dress to the presidential inaugural that she did to the governor’s inaugural."
Though Hillary Clinton, too, was often forced to confront the criticism of her appearance as it was notoriously mocked, experts find the ground on which she and Michelle Obama are compared to their predecessors uneven as the role of first lady has changed drastically over the decades; it's one Ruth Mandel, director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, called "at once the most ambiguous, high-pressured, and unpaid job in the country." (In 2006, before her husband took office, Michelle Obama earned more than $300,000 as a hospital vice president and board member.)
"Because we live in an age of the 24-hour news cycle, first ladies have an expanded role," said Farrah Parker, an image consultant who formerly worked with the Los Angeles Lakers. "Long gone are the days of simply appearing at state dinners serving as ornaments. First ladies now hold a more functional role. They make appearances on television talk shows and show the personal sides of their husbands. They spearhead national campaigns to combat childhood obesity. It certainly makes sense to tout the benefits of exercise while wearing sweat pants versus pearls."
In May, the Gallup polls predicted that the Obama re-election team would consider using the first lady to campaign on behalf of her husband this year—and she did, kicking off the crusade at Ohio State University and committing an—oh no!—fashion faux pas by wearing the same turquoise Erickson Beamon starburst pin that she did at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Careless or calculated? It could be either and yet still be exactly what Watson believes makes Michelle Obama so fascinating.
"Her ability to connect with average folks, and her tireless advocacy has made her a popular, iconic figure—dare I say it? 'Oprah with better arms!'”