Throughout childhood, there were many moments I felt ugly or invisible. I was a black girl in a fairly uniform Midwestern town where I attended a school whose perks included being the only person of color in most of my classes along with the assumption that serving fried chicken, cornbread and watermelon slices for lunch was the proper way to celebrate Black History Month.
I still feel the sting of frequent moments of insensitivity, which came when classmates would be subtly and overtly prejudice. That’s why it’s so gratifying to see Michelle Obama using her platform to start a conversation surrounding the very issues that caused me grief as a child.
Long before the days of Googling, "What dress did Michelle Obama wear…?" I was contending with "salon day" in kindergarten where I watched a visiting hair stylist efficiently coif my classmates’ hair — prim little buns or easy updos for the girls, and slick pompadours for the boys.
My hair, on the other hand, was left untouched because (surprise!) the stylist didn’t do black hair. She did, however, gingerly pick at my tightly-plaited mane for a few seconds before admitting defeat. No one was out to make me feel forgotten, but it still hurt, even then, to know I hadn’t warranted consideration.
Then there was high school, most of which I spent playing competitive sports while still carrying the conviction that I desperately needed to lose weight. Low-rise jeans were in fashion and although they didn’t look good on anyone (let’s be real here, pockets should never sit on your thighs), they were especially unforgiving for anyone with even the slightest flare of hips or a bum.
I learned to dread shopping because it was a confirmation of all that was wrong with my body. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I realized I wasn’t even particularly curvy, something I can now say was a rather disappointing discovery.
Most of my insecurities were rooted in one large, complex problem: the absence of representation. The issue plagued not just my small town, but applied across the media and cultural landscape. In teen magazines, waifish, white models pouted and posed in impossibly small clothing, and in film the situation wasn’t much better. During sleepovers, my classmates giggled over Grease, Bring it On, 10 Things I Hate About You and the rest of the laundry list of other ’90s teen flicks, few of which included actors of color; when they did, their characters were often riddled with troubling stereotypes.
My parents tried to combat the harm to my self-esteem through culture and travel. When they discovered I loved reading, they gave me books by authors who weren’t part of my curriculum — Octavia Butler, Maya Angelou and Ama Ata Aidoo, among others. Yet every step they took to boost my confidence came up against the outside world full of media imagery in which black people were conveniently invisible, which made me feel as though I just wasn’t important or valued.
A world in which black women are either invisible, misunderstood or cast as less than beautiful — the one I have struggled with — is the same world Michelle Obama occupies on a daily basis. But the frankness with with she addresses this challenge made me realize I’m not fighting the battle alone.
During a commencement speech at Tuskegee University, she shared: "The first time I was on a magazine cover – it was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun. Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me."
But she’s made positivity a central piece of her mission. The Let’s Move initiative, for instance, aims to reduce childhood obesity, an epidemic that disproportionately touches African-American and Hispanic communities. Ironically enough, Obama’s push for national health has made her the target of body shamers who somehow believe her womanly figure is indicative of poor health. Who can forget the congressman who complained about her "large posterior"?
Yet despite the parade of individuals who insist on metaphorically showing their asses by making her ass a topic of conversation, Obama continues to emphasize the importance embracing one’s natural body and pursuing health for the sake of wellness.
"We don’t talk about weight. We don’t talk about physical appearance. We talk about health. We talk about what’s on the inside. We spend so much more time talking about being kind and treating others well, and being passionate and respectful," she said on Today when asked how she talked to her daughters about body image.
Her candor hasn’t gone uncriticized. She’s faced some of the most pervasive stereotypes leveled at black women since even before entering the office, and she has responded by defying each and every one. When New York Times reporter Jodi Kanter penned The Obamas which included several descriptions that cast Michelle in the tired role of "angry black woman" — Obama set the record straight during an interview with CBS.
"I am not some kind of angry black woman," she said, effectively opening up a dialogue on how damaging such caricatures really are.
Michelle Obama’s grace under duress, particularly when she is on the receiving end of hurtful stereotypes, has also taught me that the strength of one’s accomplishments can be a personal suit of armor.
They can call her angry; they can say she’s uneducated; they can say she lacks integrity; they can throw any of the ugly stereotypes they believe about black women at her, but none can really stick. Why? Because they’re throwing them at an Ivy League educated, career-driven, fit and fashionable, eyebrows-and-hair-always-on-fleek woman who is currently occupying the role of first lady.
Because of her accomplishments, Michelle Obama was able create her own representation of what it means to be beautiful and a black woman. What Obama has taught me about loving my body is that it starts by being the only person who determines my self-worth. When that happens, subjective standards of beauty become much less important. The only standard that matters is your own.