Tag Archives: Michelle Obama

The Threat Posed by Women’s Bare Arms

Michelle Obama in front of an American flag, in a simple black dress with bare arms

Debbie says:

Like every progressive in this country, and most in the world, I’m getting hard to shock. The Missouri legislature has shocked me, however, by adopting a dress code (introduced by a Republican woman legislator) that forbids women (including elected women) to appear on the legislative floor with bare arms.

You think immediately of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, or of Victorian fashions and dress codes, but it turns out that this isn’t a fictional or ancient issue; it’s been around for much of the current century. One of the focal points appears to be that dread symbol of women’s strength and confidence, our former first Lady, Michelle Obama. I don’t remember following this at the time, but Mrs. Obama appeared at formal events with bare arms, and that caused a minor news flurry. Here’s a CBS piece from 2009, President Obama’s first year in office:

Never before, surely, has a set of bare arms launched so much discussion than in the weeks since Mrs. Obama appeared sleeveless at her husband’s speech to Congress in chilly February. Certainly not in equally chilly January 1963, when Jacqueline Kennedy wore one of her many sleeveless outfits to her own husband’s State of the Union address.

Noveck goes into various fashion analyses of Mrs. Obama’s arms, including the theory that talking about them distracts from the work she was actually doing as first lady. Of course, one of the reasons that her arms got attention and Jackie Kennedy’s didn’t is that, unlike Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Obama is Black and thus subject to vastly more scrutiny and criticism. It’s also true that Jackie Kennedy was first lady before the 1970s feminist wave, and fewer people were nervous, scared, or hypercritical–emotions which always arise when women proclaim strength.

The problem arose again in Canada, in very similar terms to today’s issue in Missouri, in 2019. According to Tina Lovgren at CBC News, the British Columbia legislature enforced what they called a “conservative contemporary dress code” forbidding bare arms, and also chastizing women who weren’t wearing slips so you could see that they had two legs (!) under their dresses.

The Obama controversy seems to have been mostly short-lived, though it reared up again now and then through the 8 years of the Obama presidency. The British Columbia dress code appears to still be in force today. The Missouri code, however, is perhaps more likely to get longer-lasting attention, in part because it is one of dozens of examples of Republican over-reach. While they scream about governments having “no right” to control the use of natural gas (which causes very significant health effects), they delight in using government to control bodies: Black and brown people’s bodies, pregnant people’s bodies, trans people’s bodies, and now female legislators’ bodies. Forbidding bare arms may be one of the least life-threatening forms of bodily control … and it’s also emblematic of what they believe they have the right to do.

Throughout Western history, women’s fashion has been a battleground in culture wars, a tool to control women’s power, and a marker for moral panics. Dress codes are a way of tracking how these movements progress–and Missouri has just issued another giant red flag, which must not go unnoticed.


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Body Image and Food Justice (in My Home Town and Everywhere)

Debbie says:

I love it when I have a set of ideas simmering in my mind that I know I “should” write about, and someone else does it for me. Bonus points for it being someone whose work I don’t know, and extra bonus points for it being set in my city and writing about the exact organizations I’m thinking about.

So, TruongChinh Duong is my new favorite person. (And my apologies in advance if I am misusing the name. I can’t find a good reference on Oakland Local, where the article ran, or on Google, to how it is hyphenated or capitalized.)

Being in one of the centers of food justice work has been exciting but as someone who has also been involved in body acceptance movement, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the frame of obesity prevention as a justification some use to enter this great work. Many groups doing this work have to apply for funding (such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move) that frames food access as obesity prevention.

Most of Chinh-Duong’s post relies on Sonya Renee, the mover and shaker behind “The Body Is Not an Apology.” Writing for the Binge Eating Disorder Association, Renee says:

My best friend, Denise Jolly stood on a subway train and disrobed, revealing all 311 lbs of her formerly hidden body in a black bra and panties. This was the culmination of a 30 day journey, in which she took photos of herself in various states of partial nudity at home and in her community. She called it the Be Beautiful project. Her nakedness in the photos was no more than what we might see on a Victoria’s Secret commercial or beer ad and yet it was revolutionary. In a society filled with weight stigma, that tells us that anyone with a body like hers is not worthy of love let alone visibility, her work was a reminder to herself and others that, “The active practice of loving myself exactly as I am, is radical self-love.” The photos were bold and powerful and I asked her to capture her journey in an essay for The Body is Not An Apology (TBINAA), an international radical self-love and body empowerment movement I founded almost 3 years ago.

image of Queen T'hisha from Women En Large

When the Huffington Post re-blogged the TBINAA article they included a slideshow of their ten favorite “Body Image Heroes”. Nine White women’s faces scrolled across my computer screen with the final woman on the slideshow being Asian. If I am being honest, I felt the ugly twinge of jealousy creep up my spine when the media outlets started calling; when I clicked on all these fair skinned faces. After all, The Body is Not An Apology started because of my choice to post a picture of my large body in just my undies on a social media page. I wondered, “Where was the Huffington Post then?” When I looked deeper at that ugly feeling it became clear it was not a personal jealousy about my gorgeous friend being seen in her brilliance. It was the bitter reminder of how often women of color, Black women specifically, are not seen.

The truth is Black women have always found ways to live in our skin with a dignity that the world has not afforded us.  More often than not, when Black women’s bodies are acknowledged it is to pathologize them.  A Google search of black women + body image leads to scores of internet hits on the “obesity crisis” in Black communities.  Whereas, when the word “black” is removed, the same search generates article upon article of White women embracing body positivity.

In Western culture, White womanhood is held as the epitome of beauty and desire.  Part of the machine of size discrimination is stripping White Women of that status as punishment for fatness. There is a way in which body positive movements both reject the notion of the body as object while reclaiming it as beautiful by dismantling the definition.  Black women’s bodies have always been objects in the social sphere but never exalted as beautiful.  The fat Black woman’s body has been rendered an object of service whether for food, advice, care-taking etc., but never has it been a thing to aspire to, at best perhaps to fetishize, but not a thing of beauty.

Chupoo Alafonte, from Women En Large

Bringing it home to Oakland, TruongChinh Duong answers the following question: How do community activists combat the obesity frame in public health, especially related to black communities?  There’s some real dollars attached to doing food justice as “combating obesity.”

I think it is essential to talk about the intersections of discrimination.  Asking how is a framework that makes someone’s body “wrong” an act of public health? We must ask who benefits from a war against people’s bodies.  Does it benefit communities to be at war with their bodies?  Does it benefit large people to view their bodies as a thing they must fight?  If the benefit is not to the communities we serve then what makes the model a justice movement?  Given that there are actual health indicators that can be assessed without size and size actually is not valid indicator of health unto itself, it is completely possible to talk about health without pathologizing bodies.  I also challenge public health professionals to be honest about the mental health aspects of having society be at war with your body or teaching people to be at war with themselves which is the translation of “combating obesity.”  Anything that reinforces inequity, bigotry, prejudice or shame IS NOT a justice movement.  Food justice work that does not include dismantling weight stigma in my opinion is not a justice movement.

What brings this home to me, personally is that I am a small-time investor in the People’s Grocery and a supporter of Phat Beets, two Oakland organizations which TruongChinh Duong namechecks. Phat Beets is specifically committed to food justice in my neighborhood. I have been in contact with them about the anti-obesity material on their site, and they have been diligent about removing it, but because it is the language of their partners (most notably Children’s Hospital Oakland), it frequently crops up again. Laurie and I are hoping to partner with some fat people of color to do some workshops for them on exactly the topics Renee and Duong TrongChinh are addressing. As regular readers of this blog know, I have also written to Michelle Obama about my concerns about the language of the Let’s Move program.

All of which is a very long-winded way to say “I agree and I’m glad you’re talking about this.”

Photos by Laurie Toby Edison from Women En Large.