I just watched a ten-minute clip from CBS This Morning in which Gayle King interviews the first lady and then discusses the experience with Charlie Rose.
During her interview with Ms. King, Mrs. Obama commented, in a conversation about how she is viewed, “I’m first lady of the entire United States of America…I’m first lady of the people who love me, and the people who don’t like anything about me.”
When I heard her speak these words, I felt a swell of respect and admiration for this woman. I already respected her for her forthrightness, her willingness to be authentic, her charisma and compassion. I already respected her for her devotion to a topic that must be addressed in this country—childhood obesity—and her ability to weather the personal attacks of saboteurs. But in hearing her speak those words, I respected her anew. The first lady, I believe, was speaking only about her own perspective, emphasizing that she seeks to serve everyone in the country, whether they like her or not. But her words are a timely, and important, reminder to us all that this relationship works both ways. Michelle Obama—or the spouse of any president—deserves respect because of her station and her work. It seems to me that we know this automatically about our presidents, but we tend to forget it about our first ladies.
How do we forget, you ask?
Well, for one thing, I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere inquiring the brand name of President Obama’s suit as a matter of course during an interview with him. Although he was once accused of wearing Mom jeans, and there was once a flurry of attention around his shirtless appearance on a beach somewhere, we generally follow the rule that when speaking to or about the president, we should stick to important stuff, like politics. When speaking to or about the first lady, however—any first lady—we are a little too fashion forward for our own good.
Case in point: when Charlie Rose asked Gayle King his first question—he wanted her to identify the first lady’s vulnerabilities—Ms. King replied that she thought he was going to ask about her dress. Now, that just made me sad. Ms. King’s interview—the bit of it I saw—was informative, respectful, and interesting. I was so happy, watching these two women talk—they made me think about how far we’ve come as a culture, and the possibilities that still await us. And yes, I noticed that they were both very beautifully and professionally dressed, just like I sometimes notice that David Letterman has got some damn fine suits. Here’s what I think about David Letterman’s suits: So what? He’s got money, of course he’s got some damn fine suits. Why can’t we think the same way about the way powerful women dress?
Ms. King even made sure to plug the dress—which Mr. Rose never asked about—at the end of the segment. In her defense, Ms. King couldn’t realistically answer a question about the first lady’s vulnerabilities—it was one of those bogus journalist’s questions, a serve in an endless game of verbal ping-pong. I just wish her go-to evasion tactic hadn’t been a dress.
But fashion focus is not the worst crime we commit when it comes to first ladies, and this first lady in particular. Ms. King meant no harm in talking about a dress, but there are those who are trying to discredit the first lady and her work. To accomplish their goal, they go after not the clothes, but the body wearing them.
Mrs. Obama has launched a government initiative against childhood obesity, Let’s Move. In doing so, she is attempting to do our country—and our children—a great service. According to the Let’s Move website, “Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese.” Disease follows obesity, y’all: that’s a proven fact. So diseases—diabetes, heart disease—are following our children around like a dog after a bag of Fritos. And Mrs. Obama is trying to kick that dog to the curb.
I posit that if a president—or a first gentleman (the spouse of a female president)—were to start such a campaign, comments on his weight would be off-sides, especially if it took just one look at the man to know he had a healthy BMI (body mass index, a measurement of body fat). But we don’t extend this common courtesy to the first lady, who clearly has a healthy body weight.
Mrs. Obama’s physique has been attacked as a way of discrediting the Let’s Move campaign, first by Rush Limbaugh and, more recently, by Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. Of course, the attacks are just silly. Mrs. Obama isn’t overweight, and even if she were, that doesn’t mean Let’s Move is somehow an unworthy cause. Plenty of people have said as much, and the first lady’s work continues despite small-minded detractors.
But she deserves better.
Because, like her or not, she is our first lady. And she’s doing her best—to be herself, to be a good mom, a supportive wife, a contributing citizen, a force for change in a country that needs it.
From what I know of her, I happen to like her quite a lot. No matter what she wears, or what her BMI is. And I’d love it if our national conversation with and about her could focus on what she’s bringing to the table, not what she’s wearing to dinner.