First lady shoulders scandal

Michelle Obama dares to wear sleeveless frocks. The outrage!

Published March 6, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

The media has discovered a poorly covered-up scandal within the White House: Michelle Obama's arms. The fact that the first lady likes showing off her elegantly athletic arms in sleeveless dresses has sparked a storm of puns about her "call to arms" and apparently questionable "right to bare arms," as well as people being "up in arms" over her shoulder-revealing frocks. It's no joke, though: Given some people's outrage, you would think the first lady was accessorizing with actual, literal guns, or flashing her breasts instead of her biceps.

The evidence is damning: She went sleeveless on "60 Minutes," in the White House kitchen during a meeting with the chefs, at an evening for the National Governors Association, during her husband's first address to Congress, on the cover of People and Vogue, and in her official White House photo. (A comprehensive photo gallery can be found here, here and here, alongside an article headlined, "The History of Michelle's Arms.")  The Huffington Post is actually keeping count -- just to put all this wild arm flashing in context: She chose "to bare her arms four times in seven days." 

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."

I suspect that for most, that's the issue right there. Behind all of this criticism is the same finger-wagging attitude: Just who does she think she is? But that's the wrong question to ask. Remember Hillary Clinton's Cleavagegate? Clinton so successfully campaigned on her ideas, instead of her sexuality, that people were horrified, it seemed, to be suddenly reminded that she was female and had secondary sexual characteristics. Maybe Obama's Armgate is driven by the fact that she has fashioned herself as the all-American White House mom -- and yet here she is showing off the killer, kick-butt biceps of a driven, Type A personality. Maybe the right question is: "Just who do I think she is?"

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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