Essay: Sally Quinn on First Lady Michelle Obama's Embracing, Embraceable Arms

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

"May I change the subject," said a prominent Washington theologian at a recent dinner. The conversation had been high-minded -- religion, philosophy, the nature of evil. "I'd like to talk about Michelle Obama's arms," he said.

He is a big fan of those arms. We then began a discussion about the significance of the first lady's arms. Actually, it turned out to be equally serious. Michelle Obama's arms, we determined, were transformational. Her arms are representative of a new kind of woman: young, strong, vigorous, intelligent, accomplished, sexual, powerful, embracing and, most of all, loving.

Today is Mother's Day. Today we should celebrate Michelle Obama's arms as the arms of a mother.

This is a woman who has the courage to say "I am mom in chief" and make her children and her family -- unapologetically -- her No. 1 priority. She is able to do this because she is so intelligent and accomplished that she doesn't have to prove anything to anyone. She is healthy enough to be able to say, this is who I am, these are my values and my priorities.

She has come under attack for exposing her arms. They are toned and muscular, burnished and beautiful. That has to be threatening to some. For some men, often, a strong woman makes them feel diminished. For some feminists, the idea of an educated woman not taking on a full-time serious job is a frightening throwback.

They are wrong. Nothing could be more empowering than to see a woman with all of the attributes of Michelle Obama embrace her children the way she does. She loves those girls, and she is giving them a role model for the kind of strong woman that she wants them to be. A woman should have the right to choose. In every respect. Having a great education, a job, a career is fulfilling. She has a Harvard Law degree and had a powerful job herself. She will take on projects in the White House that will ultimately prove to be transformational. And she likely will return to her career one day when her children are older.

For now, though, she has looked at her job as making sure that the trust and the responsibility she has taken on as a parent is where her focus lies. She also has a husband who is facing more crises than any president we have had in more than half a century. He needs her support, and she is giving him that in an intelligent and thoughtful way. It's those arms again: By going around to various agencies and talking about what the administration wants to do, she is, in her own way, embracing America.

Michelle Obama happens to be physically beautiful. She is tall, regal, elegant and statuesque, and her power has been enhanced by that attractiveness. Jackie Kennedy had that kind of power in a different era, and she was able to use it (and her bare arms) in a symbolic way to accomplish as much as she did in the arts. One does not have to be beautiful to be a mother. Being a good mother is beautiful in itself.

When I look at Michelle Obama with her daughters, I see someone who really loves her children. I see a swing set and a dog and a vegetable garden and sleepovers and redecorating the White House so that the furniture is "fort-worthy." I see two young girls who are happy and healthy and well adjusted in a situation where it is almost impossible to be all of those things. I see a woman holding hands with her husband, having date nights and adjusting his tie, a clearly sexual woman with sexy arms. A woman who is proud and unashamed of her sexuality in a city where that is not the usual image of a powerful woman. I see a woman embracing the Queen of England when the queen put her arm around her, a warm, loving and, yes, respectful gesture made to the mother of a nation. I see a woman so confident in herself that she can bring her own mother to live in the White House to help take care of her children and be a support for her and her husband as well.

Recently, Teresa Heinz Kerry had a very small ladies' lunch for Michelle Obama and her mother. The first lady was open, friendly, funny, accessible and totally authentic. She talked easily and answered personal questions without hesitation, even joked about all of the commotion about her arms. She was the first first lady I have ever met who did not seem at all wary. She had such a sense of confidence that you were going to like her, and especially that she was going to like you, that it was disarming (if you'll pardon the pun). Her mother was equally friendly, open, cozy and dear, the grandmother to die for. They left in time for Mrs. Robinson to pick up the girls at school.

As one of the guests pointed out toward the end of the lunch, when the first lady arrived she gave everyone a hug. With those arms. Michelle Obama, whatever her legacy, will certainly always be known as the first lady who made it acceptable for women, in so many ways, to exercise their "right to bare arms."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company