Memo to Michelle - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Memo to Michelle

By Constance C. R. White


She’s been one of the most transformative first ladies ever, so imagine what would happen if she put herself front and center over the next few years.

Michelle Obama is missing. And I’m missing Michelle.

We haven’t seen as much of the first lady as we did last year, or in the four years before. She seems to be keeping a low profile — there have been no magazine covers or plethora of TV appearances.

But as we head into the last 1,000 days of her reign as first lady, I say, let it rip, Michelle. Bring on the smile and the style, double down on the military families initiatives and make some noise about education.

Bring on the smile and the style, double down on the military families initiatives and make some noise about education.

Yes, it’s a treacherous time. People are in a dither about health care, deficits and class divides. They are probably in no mood to see the First Lady, even one with a 66-percent approval rating, in a crouch position pulling rutabagas from the earth. Laura Bush’s ratings were in the 70th percentile in her husband’s second term.

But while her legacy is yet to be written, one thing is pretty clear, Michelle Obama will go down in history as one of the most transformative first ladies ever, up there with Hillary Clinton, Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt. So now’s the time for her step it up. That’s right: Don’t hang back, get out there.

Here’s what I would like to see.

Show us your style

First, more fashion. I know this may not be a popular position with some feminists, but others will catch my drift. I’d like to see more Michelle on magazine covers again. Last year she appeared on several. (It was an election year, after all). Six in the next 12 months would be good. Personally I never tire of seeing Michelle Obama in this environment. She has the beauty and the style, and a warm smile. Invariably she wears something any woman can wear. It’s inspiring and aspirational. I’ll take her image over a skeletal actress or an aerobicized freakanoid any day. I mean really, who does 100 sit-ups? No, really?

Who can forget the immortal fashion moment when she appeared on The View just as we were getting to know her? You add a little brooch to your outfit, she indicated, and suddenly, “You’ve got something goin’ on.”  We women with busy lives who want to look our best appreciated that confidence.

She could also give a nod to the U.S. fashion industry, not just American designers, perhaps helping to bring back production to the United States. Maybe she could launch a competition that would underline the thousands of jobs provided by the industry beyond the deceptively glamorous role of model or designer. 

Stand up for those who fight

Second,  I’d like to see Michelle’s work with military families intensify. It’s one of the most admirable efforts she has undertaken and I believe she’s made a difference. We don’t do enough for those who fight for us. We don’t pay them enough, celebrate them enough, give them enough perks or support them in substantive ways like free health care (yes, I’m talking big government here), small business incentives, low-cost mortgages and free college education for them and their children.

Broader focus on education

Finally,  I’d like to see her focus on education. Obesity affects obese people, but education affects us all. Yes, carry on with Let’s Move, but perhaps it can now go under a bigger, more urgent umbrella. Push those schools to restore physical education classes and the arts that include dance and dramatic movement.

Happily, education appears to be something she is edging toward. Ever the loyal spouse, she is supporting the president’s renewed push on his “North Star” goal of making the U.S. the most educated country in the world. It would explain her unlikely appearance on BET’s 106 and Park , a sometimes raunchy, always super-charged young people’s house party masquerading as a talk show. She showed up to chat about education and college loans , telling an audience of students,  “Most of the jobs available will require some education beyond high school. High school is a stepping stone. It is not the finish line.”

If education is the civil rights issue of our time, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan says, then we need someone with Michelle’s clout and appeal leading the charge.

For most Americans, and most deeply for African-American women, the image of Michelle Obama as a beautiful, stylish, intelligent, accomplished, married black woman has been indescribably significant.  We need as many antidotes as we can get to rebuff the tomfoolery and warped images of black women in our ubiquitous media today.

So for the next 1,000 days and beyond, we need to see more of you, Michelle. Starting now.

Constance C.R. White is a style expert who has served as a New York Times reporter and as editor in chief of Essence magazine. 

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