On Michelle Obama and Being 'Appropriate.'

Michelle Obama wears shorts to go hiking in the Grand Canyon. HuffPo asks if it’s appropriate.

Michelle shorts

So, here’s the thing. When we were being subjected to the firestorm over Michelle’s “right to bare arms” (har har har) a few months ago, I had some conflicted feelings. I’m not a terribly conservative dresser, but I know I wouldn’t have worn a sleeveless dress to the not-State of the Union.

However. The uproar about Michelle’s arms smacked of body policing, albeit in the guise of “as first lady, is she representing the U.S. well?” See, I don’t think most people on the “no” side are there because they care about how she represents the U.S. The people who criticize the Obamas just for breathing are often the same people who are quick to claim that most Europeans “would be speaking German if it weren’t for us.” In other words, they don’t care about what other countries think of us because we’re teh awesome and everyone else can love us or leave us alone.

The people who are ‘concerned’ with the appropriateness of her attire seem to be trying to impose their own standard of What An Adult Woman Should Wear on a woman they don’t know. That bothers me.

Now, I could defend her decision to wear short-shorts by saying any of the following: she’s dressed like every American tourist ever, minus a fanny pack. She has great, muscular, long legs. And, for Christ’s sake, it’s a family vacation in Arizona in August.

But I don’t think it’s appropriate to defend her decisions, because in this case, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask whether her decisions are, um, appropriate. As White House social secretary Desiree Rogers said back in February, if Michelle wants to wear something, that’s what she’s going wear. For me, that was the end of the “conversation.” I think that generally, she’s set a standard for herself — she dresses comfortably, often chicly, and tends to be more casual and/or daring than her predecessors.*

Michelle is one of the most famous women in the world, and part of a beautiful family that people like to look at. And I think it’s natural to discuss her appearance. (For the record: neither UniverseExpanding nor I much cared for her dog-walking madras shorts. But we both recognized that if you’re out walking your dog, then you should be able to wear whatever is comfortable for you.) But something about the question “is X appropriate?” really strikes me as rude.

She’s not some teenager or twenty-something (like me) still figuring out her personal style, or navigating the waters of “is this okay to wear?” She’s not a starlet who earns her bread and butter from red carpet appearances. She’s a lawyer who has worked in corporate America; she spent years in the casual halls of upper-echelon universities; she has been a politician’s wife for some time, and now she lives an active life while keeping up with two young daughters. She’s got this.

*G.D. reminded me that HRC was pilloried for her appearance when she was FL. I have vague memories of jokes about her clothes and hair, but I don’t remember it being so pervasive as it is today. Of course, our collective celebrity obsession is a little different now.

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  • Stella

    Excellent post!

    The First Lady is doing the damn thing and I am taking notes!

  • I agree 100%, it’s not like she came out in Daisy Dukes and hooker heels for goodness’ sake. She is a grown woman who knows what she looks good in. For other people to rate the appropriateness of her attire is out of bounds.

  • quadmoniker

    I agree. With Clinton, though, there was pretty constant chatter about her haircuts and her pants suits. When she was first lady, it was generally her frumpiness and country style. They were kinda portrayed as bumpkins when they arrived in D.C. And look at the Sarah Palin clothes shopping spree uproar. Granted, there real concerns there because it was donor money and exposed campaign infighting, but it was still all about her appearance. The chatter about what Michelle wears is ridiculous, but it’s not new.

  • I’ve come to terms with the fact that this FL will be picked apart simply because the media has dubbed her a fashion icon. The conversation about whether or not her wardrobe is appropriate is much to do about nothing but I’m not surprised by it. Like you said, the people who have a problem with her attire are the same people who have an issue with her existence, period. No one in their right mind, unless they believe all women should be covered up, would blink twice if a mother wore that outfit to the crand canyon. I’m sure she wanted to wear less, the Crand Canyon in the summertime is hot as hell! And I don’t remember HRC being scrutinized for her wardrobe as FL but she certainly took a beating when she was running for president.

  • Yeah. Women in power get scrutinized over their appearance constantly. Even if they specifically dress so as to avoid attention (like the pantsuits).

    I just find the focus on whether Michelle showing her arms or legs is ‘appropriate’ really bothersome. It’s more than just criticizing the style or color or cut of her clothes…it’s a suggestion that she doesn’t know how to dress herself correctly (which is similar to what HRC went through when she entered the White House).

  • quadmoniker

    Yeah, that’s true.

  • I’m with you Shani except I didn’t question the appropriateness of the sleeveless dress she wore to the congressional address either. I did question whether she was cold – I mean it was February – but who am I to question her personal comfort?

  • Raf

    The family Obama has popularity in Ukraine. I saw the sculptor and he has devoted the creativity to Obama http://www.kingofmarble-shmatko.com/news_in/news14_en.html

  • I just can’t even believe this is an issue. It’s freaking AZ in August. And she’s fucking hiking. What the fuck else would anyone wear??

  • (Also, HuffPo has some of the most raggish tabloid “articles.” Is very annoying.)

  • storm

    Great writing and pov.

    As soon as I saw the photo with MO in the shorts, I KNEW that someone in the media was going to criticize her. That is just how inane and silly these people are.

    Who really cares? I doubt if MO does.

  • Molly

    oh, some dowdy silk three-piece suit with a lapel pin…in addition to the obvious reasons, she is getting flack because she is attractive, young and athletic…I swear to you people, especially sentimental, nostalgic right-wing types, want to look at the FL and see Mom.

  • Grump

    Did Sasha get taller?

  • Molly

    only for the photo.

  • lol…that’s Malia. And she’s 10, so I’m sure she’s growing like a weed.

  • I love the photo. It’s a cute capture of the mother-daughter duo. Little MAO is getting so tall and grown up! She looks like her mom more and more each day. Who actually cares what they wear?! It’s wonderful that we have a First Family that sets an example of physical fitness and togetherness. Refreshing.

  • She’s ten and what, six feet tall? Jesus.

  • Molly

    okay, I will concede that that is a mom outfit for a cool, sporty, blue state kinda mom, but I am talking about a powdered, precious, red state kinda mom–the Laura Bushes of the world. But yeah, the slouchy hips-forward posture is totally like organic garden-tending with other working moms from your child’s public school.

  • This is hardly important in the global scheme of things, it reeks of pettiness. Thank heavens we don’t all have to put up with self-styled fashion gurus. It’s time the commentators found something constructive to do, like care about ones fellow human beings.

  • the slouchy hips-forward posture is totally like organic garden-tending with other working moms from your child’s public school

    Are you stalking me??

  • With position and power come responsibility. It may be your opinion that you can wear whatever you want but she is the First Lady. Someone stated that she was in Arizona, well what are the men in uniform wearing.

    I think there has been a decline good or bad in the formality of the President and First Lady, coming from every president I can remember. It is just how things are. If this didn’t happen, presidents would be wearing knickers, tights, and white wigs. So I am reasonable and understand there will be a changes to the times from president to president. I have the image of Bill Clinton playing the sax.

    Am I am on the fence, yes! I think she should wear what is comfortable but at the same time I would have to say I think she is a bit too casual. I am not certain shorts are out of line all together but I would prefer the President and First Lady remain as formal as possible.

  • Michelle looks good. But mostly, she looks real. If it weren’t for the Air Force dudes behind her, I wouldn’t have known she was the First Lady, and that’s actually pretty cool. Personally, I’d like to see Barack dressed down with the family having a picnic at a national park; just a regular family, except daddy is The President of the United States of America. Oh, and her legs are fantastic…

  • I think my mom wore the same thing when we went hiking in the Grand Canyon. The overshirt was only for protection from the sun.

  • R.

    those are considered short-shorts?

  • You know, thinking back to our trip to the Grand Canyon, I’m pretty sure my mother wore something similar. But she had a fanny pack.

  • Not unless you’re trying to be sensationalist.

  • You said best: She’s got this.

  • lsn

    In total agreement. I would add a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen though.

    And damn I’m jealous of her legs!

  • Dorimander

    Kirk, she’s *hiking* with her family is Arizona in the summer. What would you have liked her to wear, a suit and heels?

    Or are you one of those people who don’t think anyone over 17 should wear shorts?

    Formality is appropriate for formal occasions. Hiking is not a formal occasion. It’s a sport activity.

  • Deasy

    MO looks awesome!- and it’s pretty ridiculous that this is even an issue. Like those who posted before me have said, what she’s wearing is not in the least bit vulgar. They’re shorts! Not booty shorts or anything like that.

    Great post.

  • Michelle rocks! I love the woman. We finally have a first lady who can relate to the citizens of America. Who knows the cost of milk and a pair of capris at the Gap and we shame her for this? Get over yourselves and find some real news to report…like oh yeah those starving kids in AMERICA!!!

  • *headdesk*

  • Before she’s anything else, she’s a wife and a mom. The woman was on vacation, come on!! Do we expect her to sleep in a Gucci gown? And as the OP pointed out, the woman has got a set of legs!! I mean, legs to die for!!

  • Great post, great legs, terrible watch 😉

  • Michelle is one of the most famous women in the world, and part of a beautiful family that people like to look at. And I think it’s natural to discuss her appearance.

  • Pingback: On Michelle Obama and Being ‘Appropriate.’ « Keemaan’s Weblog()

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  • GWT

    All Dresses.
    All Sleeves.
    No Comfortable Clothes Ever.
    Final Destination.

  • erniebufflo

    Great post! And you can bet your sweet bippy that if I’m hiking in the desert in August, I’m going to be wearing shorts. “Appropriate” to me is: will I be comfortable and fully capable of doing all the things I need to be doing in the weather in which I will be doing it? My one concern with Michelle’s above-pictured attire is that she probably needs shoes that offer some ankle support if she’s going to be hiking in a canyon.

  • Molly

    hahaha, omg, I have become a blog troll inadvertently!!!!

  • 23

    Oh come on people…

    What is the big deal?

    She’s a normal woman, like you and I.

    They were on ‘vacation’.

    They were ‘off duty’.

    Would you go to your work in your pjamas?

    Would you go on vacation wearing your work suit?

    So why the hell should she?

  • What the hell…is she supposed to wear a full blown evening gown to go HIKING?!?!?! Let’s be realistic folks, she’s a mother, and a damn good one at that, let her live a little. It’s funny, out of all the time the Bush family had gone to Camp David in the middle of political turmoil and such…nothing was said, now all of a sudden a tanktop is the center of attention. There are much larger problems currently facing this nation….the attire of the First Lady is not, and SHOULD not be our sole foucs right now.

  • Duntun

    If this first lady had chicken legs, a rooster neck and heavy wrinkles, it probably won’t be much of a deal eh?

  • ladyfresh

    does this mean skorts are about to make a come back?

  • At the risk of looking like a moron, but whats “Headdesk” ? I presume it means I’m really cool and sassy.

  • rikyrah

    it was ARIZONA IN AUGUST. you could fry an egg on the ground there. what is she supposed to wear?

  • Aisha

    It’s funny because it’s not like she was on some sort of official visit. I suppose folks think every trip on AF1 is official. So silly.