“Fat butt Michelle Obama,” said Bob Grisham, a high school football coach who was surreptitiously recorded by one of his students. “Look at her. She looks like she weighs 185 or 190. She’s overweight.”
Grisham, who was suspended Monday, is neither the first nor the most high-profile person to feel moved to comment on the first lady’s physique. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly called her Michelle “My Butt” Obama. And Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican, issued an apology after he was caught commenting on her “large posterior.” (Grisham has also said he misspoke.)
Michelle Obama obviously is not the first first lady to be subjected to criticism for the way she looks. Hillary Clinton was accused of having “cankles” — slang for chubby ankles. One of her predecessors was immortalized in song by the group Mission of Burma: “I’m haunted by the freakish size of Nancy Reagan’s head /No way that thing came with that body.”
But what is it with Michelle Obama’s critics and the fixation with her derriere?
“We have a history in this country of white people not showing adequate respect for and devaluing the bodies of black women, and this most definitely falls in line with that,” says Ayana Byrd, the co-editor of the anthology “Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts.” (Grisham, Limbaugh and Sensenbrenner are white men.)
The focus on this first lady’s posterior has historical antecedents. It reaches back to the imagery of Hottentot Venus, a woman from what is now South Africa whose naked body and pronounced posterior were paraded in shows throughout 19th-century Europe. On to the selling and trading of black women’s bodies through slavery. In modern times, black women’s figures continue to be up for public discussion in ways that are celebratory (see: “Brick House” by The Commodores) and insulting (see above).
Michelle Obama — who is 5-foot-11 and praised for her fashion sense, her bangs and her toned biceps — regularly emerges in polls as one of the most popular public figures in the country. (The White House does not discuss her weight.) She has graced magazine covers from Vogue to Better Homes & Gardens. Women’s health magazines have created workouts to help other women get “Michelle Obama arms.”
Her presence as first lady challenges the historic view of a black woman’s place and notions of beauty, says Michaela Angela Davis, a fashion expert who has campaigned for more positive images of black women in the media. “Michelle is black from a distance. She’s a real black girl,” Davis says. “A lot of people have tried to make diversity into this weird beige thing. Her presence is just really powerful to interject into the global consciousness.”
The first lady’s critics “are reacting to the culture in which they’ve grown up or they are using it as a code to racialize Michelle Obama and remind people that she’s black,” says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. “It is unreasonable to expect a nearly 50-year-old woman to have the body of a 25-year-old. She looks great for her age.”
Although the White House declined to comment, Michelle Obama was asked a few years ago during an interview whether the focus on her has affected her body image.
“No, not really — but I thank God I’m 45 in this and not 35. I feel bad for young women going through the same thing, because [at that age] you don’t know who you are. I know what makes me happy,” she said. “My message to women: Do what makes you feel good, because there’ll always be someone who thinks you should do it differently.”
Translation: Naysayers, butt out.