Having daughters has made Barack Obama take keener note of the body-image pressures young women face, the president said in a conversation with Misty Copeland that published on Monday. “That pressure, I think, has historically always been harder on African American women than just about any other women,” he told Copeland and Time reporter Maya Rhodan. “Malia will talk about black girls’ hair… and she’s pretty opinionated about the fact that it costs a lot, it takes a long time, that sometimes girls can be just as tough on each other about how they’re supposed to look.”
Copeland, the superstar ballerina whose body has been labeled “wrong” for the sport, said her fame has allowed her to embrace her “healthy, athletic body.” Obama was incredulous that Copeland, whom he called “tiny” and “petite,” could ever register as too large for ballet. But, the two agreed, that kind of appearance-based language is often a coded way to exclude people of color from traditionally white institutions. That’s why Michelle, Obama said, is such an important role model for their kids:
It’s part and parcel of a broader way in which we socialize and press women to constantly doubt themselves or define themselves in terms of a certain appearance. And so Michelle and I are always guarding [our daughters] against that. And the fact that they’ve got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful.
On one hand, the president’s characterization is smart: Studies have indicated that mothers have a strong impact on their daughters’ body image. One found that more than half of girls aged 6 to 8 thought their ideal weight was thinner than their current weight, and they were more likely to feel dissatisfied with their bodies if they thought their mothers disliked their own bodies. Teen girls who think their mothers want them to be thin are two to three times more likely to want to lose weight. A parent’s influence can be so strong that the clinical director of the Mayo Clinic’s eating disorders program advises them to engage in “zero talk about dieting, zero talk about weight … zero comments not only about your daughter’s weight, obviously, but zero talk about your weight and even other people’s weight.” Michelle Obama’s very public emphasis on nutrition and exercise, as opposed to weight or looks, sends exactly the right message.
But Barack Obama’s framing of Michelle’s role modeling—that it’s good for Malia and Sasha to see that he “appreciates” their mother’s curves—is the wrong one. No matter how the girls look or how their bodies grow, they should never have to measure their worth and beauty by what their spouses, fathers, or other men prefer. It’s also a basic misunderstanding of how body image works. Fatphobia doesn’t just stem from the male gaze, and our society’s preference for thinness isn’t all about sex appeal; it’s ingrained in the way women are taught to evaluate themselves and other women, too.
The message that curves are OK if and because men like them could be particularly loud for Sasha and Malia, who have already experienced objectification in the public eye. The New York Daily News, that reliable bastion of taste and class, published a paparazzi photo of then-12-year-old Sasha Obama’s butt in 2013. Then, bloggers wondered, “are Malia’s shorts way too short?” Malia became a trending topic on Twitter later that year when a glimpse of her pants became visible in less than two seconds of footage of the family entering and exiting the National Portrait Gallery. The ensuing social-media posts, including one from NFL player Darnell Docket, cast the then-16-year-old as a nascent sex object—and the focus on her butt lent the whole obsession an uncomfortable racial undertone. That image recently resurfaced in a viral collage that poked fun at the president’s potential reaction:
The implication here is that fathers have some ownership over their daughters’ bodies, which stems from a more general notion of women as public objects for men’s pleasure. In its most extreme form, that idea supports creepy spectacles like virginity certificates and purity balls. In a more muted capacity, it tells girls that their mothers are beautiful because their fathers say so.