Michelle Obama Must Be Fat

So with all the swirling excitement about Iowa, not to mention my having a day job, I missed this awesome story:

Can you imagine how the incident would play out if an African American congressman made a crude remark about First Lady Laura Bush’s body? It certainly would have taken more than an insincere apology to wash that sin away. That scenario never happened — hopefully because those congressmen were raised with a measure of common decency. I know that America’s first family – an image this country presents to the world — is traditionally granted a certain amount of respect across party lines.

Only Wisconsin Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner apparently isn’t bound by such traditions. While I suspect he might be the first to defend the honor and dignity of previous First Ladies, he was recently overheard at Washington’s Reagan National Airport loudly criticizing Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative: “She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.”

His insults quickly disappeared from the headlines after he pledged to send the first lady an apology.

Well, at least he….

Even then, though, he couldn’t resist — through a spokesperson — taking another shot at Michelle Obama’s efforts to get Americans to add more fruits and veggies to their diets and to get moving.

The aide’s note said: “Mr. Sensenbrenner was referring to the First Lady’s healthy food initiative. He doesn’t think the government should be telling Americans what to eat. While he may not agree with all of her initiatives, he plans to contact the First Lady’s office to apologize for his comments.”

Well, isn’t that douchey.

There are many attacks on the Obamas that I find wrongheaded. Take this facile attack on Michelle Obama’s vacation in the exotic foreign nation of Hawai’i, please. But at least I can understand their genesis. It does cost a lot of money for a first family to travel, because, unfortunately, there are wackos that would like to kill them. The alternatives are worse, of course, and the complaints tend to be very partisan, but at least they have some basis in reality.

But the attacks on Michelle Obama’s looks? I don’t get them. At all. If Michelle Obama was fat, Sensenbrenner’s attack would be vicious and wrong. But Michelle Obama is not fat, not by any rational measure. It would be like attacking me for having too much hair — it’s not just wrong, but it’s simply not true.

Can one criticize the First Lady’s focus on ending childhood obesity? Yes, one can — heck, one should. Spending too much time on obesity feeds into the myth that fat qua fat is somehow wrong.  I’d much rather the emphasis was on eating healthier and exercising without regard to weight.

But even if you find Obama’s emphasis on obesity to be wrong, it’s hardly Orwellian. She’s gone on the Disney Channel to encourage kids to eat better and exercise more. There hasn’t been a policy component to it. Compared to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign — which dovetailed with the beginning of the War On Drugs — it’s been pretty low-key. Hardly the kind of thing that merits a full-throated attack on Obama’s policy, much less her personal level of fitness.

And that, frankly, is what’s so shocking about the treatment of Michelle Obama. You can criticize her on many things, but she certainly appears to be fit for an almost-48-year-old, and by conventional standards of beauty, she at least rates as attractive. And yet, just as the right attacks her husband for being stupid, they attack Michelle for being ugly and fat.

I don’t think one has to dig too far to find the racism implicit in these attacks. Michelle Obama cannot be attractive because she’s black; black women can’t be attractive. Never mind that she is and they are. If we start admitting that Michelle Obama is pretty and that she and her husband are smart, we might have to start asking why we’ve built up all these racist assumptions about what “attractive” is, and who can be “smart.”

As Mary C. Curtis puts it:

Not only is this disrespect crude, it also proves yet again that you can’t go wrong disrespecting a black woman in the United States of America, even if she lives in the White House – and in some constituencies, especially if she lives in the White House. Sensenbrenner’s nasty rant made me sick and sad because it brings to the surface the ugly history of how black women are viewed in America, stereotyped and dehumanized, our bodies everyone’s business except our own.

What in the world is Sensenbrenner doing staring at the First Lady — not as a person but as a specimen, each part an item on an anatomical checklist? He doesn’t approve of what he’s seeing but he can’t keep his eyes off of her. It’s creepy but unfortunately familiar, the way he devalues black beauty while being mesmerized by it.

Exactly. It’s depressing, and wrong. But it’s all too familiar. The Obamas must be ugly and stupid, because if they aren’t — if they’re actually attractive and smart — it calls into question the comfortable lie that far too many successful white people have told themselves. And we can’t have that.

This entry posted in Elections and politics, Fat, fat and more fat, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

10 Responses to Michelle Obama Must Be Fat

  1. 1
    Mandolin says:

    I also wonder whether the choice of “large posterior” has a racial component to it. Fat ass is, of course, a generic insult, but nevertheless, it’s weighted (no pun intended) here.

  2. 2
    Jadey says:

    I was going to make the same comment as Mandolin – the physical stereotype of black women is that they “got back”. (Sarah Baartman, anyone?) Michelle Obama does not particularly fit this physical stereotype, but it’s not unsurprising to me that such a specific comment would be made as an expression of racism as well.

  3. 3
    mythago says:

    Yeah, what you guys said. On the one hand, “she’s ugly/fat/a dyke” is pretty much the reflexive way to put down any woman, but “she’s got a big ass” has a very obvious racial component to it.

  4. 4
    Susan says:

    Like the remark wasn’t bad enough, it’s sexist too.

    I just googled “Jim Sensenbrenner images,” and was confronted with exactly what I expected: a somewhat elderly male who…shall we say…is carrying a few extra pounds. Quite a few, actually. (Whereas Michelle Obama is a dish, no other way to cut it.) Women, you see (you do see this, don’t you?) are supposed to be thin and hence sexy (and even if this one is, maybe she isn’t quite enough…); men, especially powerful men, it’s OK if they are anything but thin, because….why was that again?

    A lovely young married woman down our block was mercilessly derided by her husband for being “fat.” She was quite unhappy about it. One day I was driving by their house, and he was out front stripped to the waist, trimming a tree. Let us just say that he wasn’t exactly an appetizing sight.

    Now if he had taken the position that “fat is beautiful” or OK at least, so what. Or if he (or Jim Sensenbrenner) just kept his mouth shut on the topic. But where did he (or Jim Sensenbrenner) get off demanding that a woman be so much skinnier than he is himself? Talk about glass houses!

    I’m glad to say that my neighbor ditched the husband.

  5. 5
    JutGory says:

    Susan: “Now if he had taken the position that “fat is beautiful” or OK at least, so what. Or if he (or Jim Sensenbrenner) just kept his mouth shut on the topic. But where did he (or Jim Sensenbrenner) get off demanding that a woman be so much skinnier than he is himself? Talk about glass houses!”

    But, isn’t that what HE is saying? She has her campaign against obesity and he is saying to her that she should not be throwing stones.


  6. 6
    Mythago says:

    Except that her house isn’t glass at all, to continue the metaphor.

  7. 7
    JutGory says:

    But I think that is a separate issue.

    I don’t know if I would say his criticism is accurate. And, actually, I am not sure if it qualifies as “criticism”; nothing if the post suggests he takes the position “fat is bad” (though he may believe that). Essentially, his statement takes the form of “you are one to talk.”

    Susan’s response to Sensenbrenner’s comment was, in effect, “no, you are one to talk.” If, hypothetically, Sensenbrenner believes that “fat is beautiful” and is happy with his “few extra pounds,” as Susan puts it, then, yeah, he is one to talk. That is why I don’t think Susan’s “glass house” analogy quite fits.

    It may fit with her neighbor story, where the guy criticizes his wife for being fat when he himself is fat; Sensenbrenner is criticizing Obama’s campaign because he thinks she is not a good spokesperson for that position.


  8. 8
    CaitieCat says:

    Except, JutGory, that if she were fat, Mr. Obama might never have been elected dogcatcher, for a start, and even if he had, then it would make her a bad role model, because how can someone fat be telling other people not to be?

    You’re assuming there’s a way for her to win here, and there isn’t: she’s a Black woman in the White House, and the bigots are going to rag her about anything and everything they can spot, and make up shit when they can’t see anything. And they’re all going to say that they’re not dogwhistling, while every conservative hound in the place is wetting himself.

  9. 9
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Jutgory – I agree with you that Susan’s reply isn’t entirely pertinent here since Sensenbrenner isn’t saying (in the quoted material) that women shouldn’t be fat, or criticising M. Obama for being fat qua fat. Rather, as you point out, he’s saying that as a (according to him) fat person, she shouldn’t lead anti-obesity campaigns.

    But that’s not the same as Susan’s criticism of her neighbour, either. Susan’s neighbour is hypocritically attacking his wife for an attribute he shares. Obama’s anti-obseity campaign is not pitched as an attack on fat people’s self-worth (it may or may not have negative implications in that domain, but that’s not its goal); it’s a campaign about adopting a lifestyle that will reduce (not eliminate) the chance people will be fat. For the hypocrisy charge to make sense, Sensenbrenner would have had to claim that Obama is leading a different lifestyle. He is trying to do so indirectly, but that’s obviously nonsense; it’s entirely possible for someone to exercise and eat healthy food and still be fat, especially when talking about a person in their late forties as compared to a child.

    If Sensenbrenner had said “She lectures us on eating right while she eats nothing but beer and donuts herself”, then the analogy to Susan’s situation would make more sense. At the moment, not only does his statement carry racist and sexist overtones, it’s not even a sensible criticism.

  10. 10
    Dee says:

    Agreed. It was a racist, sexist and unwarranted thing to say.

    I wrote Michelle Obama(‘s staff) a long letter on why the stated goal of the “Let’s Move” campaign should not be “to eliminate childhood obesity within a generation.” As someone who was an active fat kid who was raised by middle class, nutritionally aware parents I know that it’s just not possible to prevent some kids from having a heavier than average build; it’s a natural part of human variation. Demonizing those kids and/or their parents is going to hurt them, not help them.

    I suggested that the program focus on regular movement and healthy, conscious eating without the assumption that if everyone did those things, everyone would be thin. Probably due to all the similar letters they received, the program has moved a bit in that direction.

    However, the fact that I had/have a problem with the Michelle Obama’s weight focused approach to health does not make me any less annoyed by Sensenbrenner’s nasty, inappropriate remark.