Why America is up in arms about Mrs. O's sleevelessness

Is the First Lady flashing her toned triceps as a way to get Americans to the gym?

Let’s just cut to the chase about what’s really fuelling Sleevegate: the primary reason America is up in arms, so to speak, about Michelle Obama’s penchant for sleeveless clothing has less to do with decorum than the fact it’s her one look most of the nation can’t imitate—or at least imitate and look good doing it. Sure, women can buy knock-offs of her oversized pearls or order some of her more affordable outfits from J.Crew. But, as any woman over 35 knows, the First Lady’s arms didn’t sculpt themselves. It takes daily discipline and countless reps to achieve that kind of definition. And there’s nowhere you can go to order it. No cosmetic surgeon has yet figured out a procedure that offers the same effect (and whoever does will be set for life). So who can blame the First Lady for wanting to show her toned triceps off?

But clearly the act of showing them off is problematic—at least symbolically. First, it suggests vanity, a trait First Ladies shouldn’t have. Secondly, it conveys strength. As has been endlessly pointed out, Jackie Kennedy also wore sleeveless dresses as her signature. But there’s a big difference: Mrs. Kennedy’s arms appeared as unthreatening as her breathy little-girl voice. Michelle Obama looks like she could arm wrestle with her husband and win. Evidently that’s discomfiting for a lot of people who expect the First Lady, the role model for a nation, to be domesticated and docile. Consider the fluffy “Life in the Obama White House” story in the current issue of People, on whose cover Mrs. O appears flashing bared arms. Repeatedly, the First Lady is referred to as husband’s “helpmate,” an archaic term that’s been replaced by the more equalitarian “partner.”

Predictably, the flap has spun out into a discussion of female rights internationally, with Islam becoming the basis of comparison. On, Bonnie Fuller asked: “Is Michelle Obama supposed to wear a burka?” Writing in the Guardian, Natalie Hanman spins the fracas into a discussion of the ongoing attempt to control the presentation of women’s bodies: “With International Women’s Day this Sunday, it’s a timely reminder of the limitations and risks in an imperialist (or, indeed, imperialist feminist) view of gender equality, which not only ignores the contextual and complex reasons why some women wear the hijab and why other women resist it even when it is a legal requirement – it also fails to interrogate the west’s own role in inhibiting women’s rights, not least when it comes to the control over women’s bodies and what they wear.” .

Really, it’s a lot more simple: in going sleeveless, Michelle Obama, who from day one has used clothing as a political weapon, is telegraphing a message to a public that seems to analyze her every costume change with more rigor than it does her husband’s policies. And that message says: “I’m dressing as I please, folks.” And if her toned triceps serve as inspiration for women—and even men—to hit the gym so than can imitate her look—and look good doing it—all the better.

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