Michelle Obama chided for showing her arms

// 6 March 2009

Michelle Obama has apparently been coming under fire for the sin of… going sleeveless.

Natalie Hanman in the Guardian reports on this latest round in the relentless media focus on Michelle Obama’s clothes and body.

For example, check out how the New York Times opened its piece about this:

Nancy Reagan wore spangled ballgowns. Barbara Bush had fake pearls. Michelle Obama wears her bare arms.

And then this quote:

“Oh my god,” Cindi Leive, the editor of Glamour magazine, exclaimed while watching the address, she said via email. “The First Lady has bare arms in Congress, in February, at night!”

Already, a debate is brewing about just what the First Arms signify. “Post-Title IX arms,” Robin Givhan called them in the Washington Post. They represent achievement and self-control, wrote Kate Holmquist in the Irish Times. (Buff arms say: “I’m too serious a woman to show off my legs or my breasts,” she argued.)

So Michelle Obama is athletic and disciplined. Yes, fine, but that was pretty clear before we started examining her triceps on a daily basis. Instead, those bare arms seem like a reminder of everything about her we can’t see.

In two years, she has shown us a great deal of herself, more than most of us would share, and yet right now, we actually don’t know that much about her. What does she think of the White House, and what does she do all day? Does her husband consult her on any of the difficult decisions he faces? Is the “Mom-in-chief” really, totally confident that her children are going to come through this just fine? In a few years, will she still look as confident as she did last night, or will she reach for cover? And is she comfortable as she looks in those skimpy tops, or is she actually freezing?

From Broadsheet:

The Washington Post reports that it has received hundreds of reader complaints on the subject. A Chicago Tribune reader wrote of her outfit during the president’s congressional address: “Does the lady not understand that these Big Speech Events are serious and important? Not a cocktail party?” — surely not, she’s just a little lady with a Harvard law degree and a successful, high-powered career! — “The season is winter. The occasion is business. Dress was wrong place and time.” My first response to that reader: Perhaps you’re in the wrong time and place. Except, take a gander at this photo (via the New York Times) from 1963 of Jackie Kennedy during President Kennedy’s State of the Union; her get-up looks nearly identical to Obama’s in her White House portrait. The first lady’s view, according to social secretary Desiree Rogers, is simple: “If I want to wear no sleeves to hear my husband speak, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Then there’s a piece on CNN, about how to get arms just like Michelle’s. Which is full of stuff like this:

Rylan Duggan, a personal trainer who runs Go Sleeveless, a blog that instructs women how to tone up flabby arms and “eliminate bat wings,” said that in addition to asking how to get “Madonna arms” or “Kelly Ripa arms,” clients are now asking about getting “Obama arms.”

And ‘reassurances’ that working out your upper body will not lead to “big muscles”. (How awful would that be, after all?! *eyeroll*).

Exhausted with work and caring responsibilities? The SF Examiner uses Obama’s example to underline that that’s just no excuse!

Comments From You

Josie // Posted 6 March 2009 at 12:50 pm

Oh sweet heavens! Is this really all that people can say about the fabulous Michelle Obama? Maybe they would prefer if she covered up with a burkha?

And people have the nerve to ask us why we’re feminists after “equality” has now been achieved!!! I need a drink…

Anne Onne // Posted 6 March 2009 at 1:21 pm

The Broadsheet one’s comment they quoted is the worst. The rest are over-analytical of what amounts to one outfit at the end of the day. Which shouldn’t

But that comment, WTF? Since when is not wearing sleeves an indication that a woman doesn’t realise an event is serious? As to all the ‘isn’t she cold?’ comments: she’s hardly naked, so isn’t it up to her to decide what she feels comfortable or warm in? I’d be dressed to the hilt because I love being warm, for example, but I know people who can’t stand wearing lots of clothes and always feel boiling.

I doubt such an educated, confident woman is in ignorance of what the weather is like, and her dress isn’t all that unusual.

As for all the focus on her arms: why can’t we just leave them alone? After all, we’re not attached to them. There have seriously got to be better things to write about, whether about Michelle Obama or in general, than analysing her arm muscles.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 6 March 2009 at 1:23 pm

Bare ARMS? Oh my God! Please, won’t someone think of the children?!

Kez // Posted 6 March 2009 at 2:03 pm

…All of which would be, of course, as nothing compared to the media storm which would be unleashed were Michelle, for instance, to dare to gain a few pounds, or not look utterly fantastic all the time.

Sabre // Posted 6 March 2009 at 2:14 pm

How depressing that the press are always waiting to pounce on her for some flaw or another. I think a lot of people are really disconcerted to see a strong beautiful intelligent black woman as First Lady, and because they can’t find other flaws they’re grasping at anything they can get, i.e. bare arms.

Still, I don’t remember there being this much fuss about Condoleeza Rice.

Charlotte // Posted 6 March 2009 at 2:47 pm

I thought it was in the constitution that American’s have the right to bare arms?

– athankyou –

Victoria // Posted 6 March 2009 at 2:58 pm

“I thought it was in the constitution that American’s have the right to bare arms?”

I’ve just nearly choked to death on a mouthful of lunch, and it’s all your fault.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 6 March 2009 at 3:12 pm

Sigh – no surprise to me the misogynistic media has nothing better to do than continually trash a powerful woman because she refuses to invisibilise herself. Once upon a time the print media concerned itself with reporting news but now given it has become totally controlled by misogynistic men and their underlinings the news has become non-news. Instead we are bombarded with propaganda all proclaiming their right to ‘criticise and tell women how they should behave and act.’

I’m still waiting (obviously in vain) for articles criticising powerful male political figures because these individuals have not had their hair cut recently, are wearing outdated clothing or horrors – have gained weight!

Who says women have achieved equality? It is just a patriarchal fairy tale.

Kez // Posted 6 March 2009 at 3:49 pm

Well, to be fair, Jennifer Drew, men in the public eye do get criticised for not matching up to the image they are supposed to present… not to the same extent as women, agreed, but the criticism does go on.

I know it’s going back a bit (many of you won’t remember!), but the one that springs immediately to mind is ex-Labour leader Michael Foot wearing a “donkey jacket” at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, and being absolutely hammered in the press as a result.

Anne Onne // Posted 6 March 2009 at 4:23 pm

Charlotte FTW.

Josie: Sadly, I don’t think a Burkha would be accepted, either. Then it would be all ‘Islam is oppressive!!!’ and ‘Obama is a crazyexyremistterroristorsomething!!!’. Apparently oppressing women is OK so long as we’re the ones doing it.

The Boggart // Posted 6 March 2009 at 5:17 pm

Why is it that the media cannot resist picking apart and generally “cutting down to size” any woman who happens to fall within their gaze?

I think that women in MO’s position are under double pressure because if they aren’t superhumanly toned and manicured then they are dowdy frumps who are letting the side down. But if they are considered too attractive then they are self-indulgent, flashy, vulgar, inappropriate bimbos stealing the limelight from their husbands and distracting from the serious business of running the county.

Charlotte: I embrace your sense of humour with proudly bared and goose-pimpled arms!

Eleanor T // Posted 6 March 2009 at 5:26 pm

Charlotte – THAT was feckin’ hilarious! LOL.

I can’t believe bare arms can cause this much fuss. I think I’m going to start exposing mine more often, just to piss other people off.

antiplath // Posted 6 March 2009 at 6:45 pm

Seriously? This is what is passing for news? Is there nothing else on this earth to discuss in the media than Michelle Obama’s bare arms? I’m going to throw up now.

Richard // Posted 7 March 2009 at 4:41 pm

If all one can do is criticize the first lady’s attire they should get a life. I am far more interested in what she says and does.

My name is Jose // Posted 7 March 2009 at 4:53 pm

“Once upon a time the print media concerned itself with reporting news but now given it has become totally controlled by misogynistic men and their underlinings the news has become non-news.”

But all these articles have been written by women, not men?

Which leads me to my next question..how many of these bare-arm articles have been written by men anyway, if any?

Anne Onne // Posted 8 March 2009 at 12:01 pm

My Name Is Jose, that question is important, but not as much as one might think. Because whilst it may be of concern whether these articles were written by men or women, media is overall controlled by men, and the people telling these journalists what to write stories on will probably have been men, as are the people at the top who set the tone for what is considered news-worthy and what isn’t.

The gender of the person at the bottom of the media empire is trivial if the majority of people at the top, the ones who ultimately decide what we are told and from which perspective, are white men.

Also, whilst I am frustrated by female journalists who build a name for themselves writing misogynistic articles, their involvement should be taken within the context of news media where stories about women are relegated to a ‘women’s section’ or stuck in ‘fashion and lifestyle’ sections, even if they are about gendered violence or serious, completely un-fashion related topics.

A media where women get handed the misogynistic (c.f. Republican party, USA) angle, or allowed to publish their own misogyny where men wouldn’t be, because ‘it’s not sexist if it comes from a woman’. Not only that, it’s still thought the focus on women in stories should revolve around her clothes, children, men in her life, or body issues, so it’s assumed that these are the only things worth focusing on in women. If we look at how the media portrays women and men, it tells us a lot about the roles society allots us.

Men are in the media as criminals (since most criminals are men), but also as politicians and actors and bankers and powerful individuals. The focus may be on what they’ve done wrong, but the focus on their achievements (physical, intellectual, monetary) outweighs focus on appearance or wrongdoing. Women are mostly represented as either too skinny, too fat, too desperate. Women of note get a reference, but that tends to be when some female politician has done something wrong. Actresses and celebrity women’s achievements are believed to revolve around which man they date and which clothes they fit into.

It’s evident that stories about Michelle Obama’s arms and clothes are the tip of an iceberg in terms of how the media treats women, both its journalists and the celebrities, politicians and ordinary women it reports on.

maggie // Posted 8 March 2009 at 1:54 pm

Charlotte, your comment is brilliant.

Why do women write about such banalities? Perhaps they’re politically right wing.

The Boggart // Posted 8 March 2009 at 8:46 pm


As a feminist whose views are all over the political spectrum, I think that it’s a bit of an unfounded to smear to claim that right-wing automatically = misogynist. Anne Onne has already done a pretty good job explaining that individual journalists rarely have a lot of freedom, and that women in particular are often relegated to the banal “women’s interest” sections or pressured into being the so-called “acceptable face” of misogyny. Unfortunately, cruel and unnecessary superficiality is ubiquitous and does not recognise political affiliations.

My name is Jose // Posted 8 March 2009 at 10:15 pm

“Because whilst it may be of concern whether these articles were written by men or women, media is overall controlled by men, and the people telling these journalists what to write stories on will probably have been men”


But the Glamour comment, came from the editor..who is a women! So how does that figure in?

I could accept arguements concerning the damaging effects of this judgemental ‘keeping-up-with-the-jones’ peer-pressure culture (of which, this is just one symptom).

I just can’t accept, that it’s as easy enough, to vaguely point a finger at some un-named misogynist bogeymen and say…”It’s his fault!”

Plus, the problem with this approach is that reduces intelligent women to being unthinking idiots, who are spoonfed commands by horrible men.

That idea, isn’t likely to win many folk over.

Rhonwyyn // Posted 8 March 2009 at 10:36 pm

…But at least she wasn’t wearing flip-flops! :-P

Anyone remember the flack about this picture: http://cdn.news.aol.com/aolnews_photos/0d/01/20050719111109990002

A photo of Northwestern University’s national championship women’s lacrosse team, taken during the athletes’ visit to the White House last week, shows four of the nine women in the front row wearing flip-flop sandals along with their dresses and skirts.

The choice of footwear has prompted a mini-controversy — a flip-flop flap, if you will.

A front-page story in the Chicago Tribune included the headline “YOU WORE FLIP-FLOPS TO THE WHITE HOUSE?!” inspired by an e-mail sent to player Kate Darmody from her older brother after he saw the photo on the team’s Web site.(from http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/news/story?id=2111340)

I’m not sure how to put this into words, so please bear with me. I have thoughts of women in the business world and how men have standard attire – pants, jacket, tie – and women don’t. Well, women were forced into trying to fit into that, and it didn’t work. Then there’s the stink about the flip-flops. And now the bare arms.

Is it a question of being respectful of the presidency? If so, what determines, and WHO determines, what that respectfulness looks like? Can we agree on guidelines?

Most older individuals I know dress up to go to the Olive Garden. When we were there last night, my 22-year-old sister commented on the fact that so many people there were dressed casually – some even in sweatpants. As children, going out to eat was a special deal, so we dressed up for places like the Olive Garden. Nowadays, it’s not such a big deal, so dressing up isn’t de rigeur. Is it the same thing with the presidency? With incessant media presence, news of the presidency is more accessible and has less of a mystique. One way to look at the kerfluffle over the sleeveless dress is that maybe the media is trying to recover the mystique? But why they have to do it with Michelle is something unknown to me. I’m rather young, so I don’t remember other presidencies very well, but it strikes me that Michelle is rather unlike her First Lady predecessors.

Also, as the train of thought winds around the track, Sarah Palin’s shoes and outfits caused a big stir, but Hilary Clinton had less press (or maybe I just don’t recall it) during the presidential campaign. Was that because Hilary wore the standard pantsuit and didn’t stray from the “accepted” norm? Which gets me back to my question of who determines norms, etc.

I don’t know that I asked any great questions, but hopefully someone else here can synthesize something insightful from the things I brought up!

Ashley // Posted 9 March 2009 at 11:18 pm

My name is Jose: being a woman should not be a get-out-of-jail card when it comes to sexism. Lots of women hold and express sexist views, consciously or unconsciously. As feminists, we should be as adamant in countering those as we are in countering similar views aired by males.

The media over-focusing on the appearance of powerful or otherwise important women, rather than what they’re saying or doing, is definitely a sexist aspect of contemporary mainstream media, and one we ought to work to get rid of.

One reason for the trend you’re observing where the people who are directly perpetuating this tend to be women might be simple statistical correlation between being a writer on fashion and similar issues, and being a woman — I have no numbers, but I assume there is such a (positive) correlation. Beyond that, though, I think this idea that women’s appearances are newsworthy is just a deeply entrenched idea in Western media in general, for both male and female writers.

It seems needlessly divisive to assume that these women are all conservatives, and I don’t think it’s necessarily true in most cases.

rita // Posted 10 March 2009 at 12:11 pm

I do not really care about her bare arms. I like the fact that she will not conform to people’s pressure and will stand by her decisions. What better way to empower young girls. I am tired of these artificial celebrities who alter themselves and end up losing a sense of who they are hence spreading the trend especially to the young generation. If she walked out of the house without make up, i would be pleased she did. If there’s nothing obscene about the bare arms, what is the fuss?

Matt Eckel // Posted 10 March 2009 at 8:50 pm

To be fair, the NY Times piece was being quite supportive (at least in my reading), saying it made her look badass.

rita // Posted 11 March 2009 at 9:48 am

There’s nothing supportive about the NY article. It is bullying. Think of all the public figures that have been bullied into looking perfect and how the young generation has followed suit. Young girls or boys being bullied at school for being over weight, having small breasts, being gay, not dressing in trendy clothes, not taking drugs,and the list goes on. I hope and pray she stands her grounds because the trend of conforming to the media’s pressure especially the public figures even when it is not necessary is spreading wide and dangerous. I am not saying that all media messages are bad, but some are really unnecessary. Just think of the young genereation who are under this kind of pressure. I did not even notice the bare arms untill it was brought up. All i saw was one smart, confident lady.

Sarah // Posted 15 March 2009 at 10:56 am

I find the idea that the First Woman’s arms are a subject of debate laughable more than offensive.

Is there not a danger that when you meet the rhetoric of misogyny on its own terms that you’re giving it a credibility it doesn’t deserve? I think the posters on here who choose to laugh at this rather than dissect, dispute or refute the points made by the crazy arm-obsessed commentators have the right idea – especially ‘the right to bare arms’!!

If all the US media has on Michelle Obama at the moment is her arms (and isn’t there a racist angle here too – she’s showing her skin), then she’s doing something right!!

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