|Image by the USDA via Flickr/Creative Commons|
Last Friday Michelle Obama celebrated her 50th birthday. Many people -- from journalists to politicians to everyday citizens -- sent the First Lady well wishes via social media.
Alabama-based writer Cassie Fambro, however, felt that many of these good intentions missed the mark. Most people seemed more focused on Mrs. Obama's sculpted triceps and trendy frocks than on the work she's done over the past several years, Fambro laments in her article "Twitter wishes Michelle Obama a happy birthday, but makes it about style over substance."
Instead of linking to the efforts Michelle Obama has made to promote healthy eating and exercise with "Let's Move," mainstream media was guilty of linking to which dresses they liked best that the first lady wore.
Boston.com, for example, shared 15 style lessons from the First Lady. CNN focused on "How Michelle Obama used style to move a nation."
Fambro says at least Bill Clinton got it right. He tweeted:
Happy 50th to Michelle Obama. Thanks for the great work you do with to help our kids get healthy.
Fambro's article, made an excellent point but also made me wonder if it will ever be possible for a woman to be celebrated for both style and substance. I certainly admire the FLOTUS for both. I applaud her efforts to end childhood obesity, the successful career she had before becoming First Lady, and the moving speeches she has given while on the campaign trail for her husband. But I also love that she bucks the typical First Lady attire and rocks a style all her own. And, yes, when I'm working out in my living room to Jillian Michaels DVDs I am usually thinking about how I really want some Michelle Obama guns.
But, again, is it possible for women to be generally recognized for both substance and style?
I'm a girl who loves fashion. Though I don't claim to be a style maven yet, I do put thought and careful consideration into what I wear - striving to assemble outfits that are both fashionable and functional. So, yes, I walk a little taller when someone compliments what I'm wearing. But to be clear, I don't wear what I wear simply because I'm fishing for compliments. I wear what I wear simply because I want to. Wearing cute clothes is fun and makes me happy. The compliments are just an added perk. And I love Mrs. Obama's style because she seems to be the kind of lady who wears what she wants, also.
And while compliments on my clothes are great, I want even more accolades for my writing and my teaching. My point is I want to be sharp in every sense of the word -- a sharply dressed lady with a sharp mind.
But women who take pride in their appearance are often considered self-centered or vain or less intelligent.
Even some of my fellow feminists claim that women who bother to paint their nails or pick out pretty pencil skirts are wasting precious time that should be used on writing, organizing and smashing the patriarchy.
So often women are told that we must avoid trendy attire, clothes that accentuate our femininity and colors like pink in order to be taken seriously.
In her TED talk on feminism, that's now famous after being featured on Beyonce's new album, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie admits that even she has struggled with this:
The first time I taught a writing class in graduate school, I was worried. I wasn't worried about the material I would teach because I was well prepared and I was going to teach what I enjoyed teaching. Instead I was worried about what to wear. I wanted to be taken seriously. I knew that because I was female I would automatically have to prove my worth and I was worried that if I looked too feminine I would not be taken seriously. I really wanted to wear my shiny lip gloss and my girly skirt, but I decided not to. Instead I wore a very serious, very manly, and very ugly suit because the sad truth is when it comes to appearance we start off with men as the standard, as the norm.
Adichie goes on to point out the fact that when a man is getting ready for a business meeting he never has to worry about looking "too masculine."
If Adichie could go back in time, she'd wear her shiny lip gloss and girly skirt.
I wish I had not worn that ugly suit that day. Had I then had the confidence I have now to be myself my students would have benefited even more from my teaching because I would have been more comfortable and more fully and more truly myself. I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and for my femininity. I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.
And so I want my writing and my wardrobe to look good. I don't think I should have to choose between one or the other.