To be clear, I voted for the other guy, the one who didn't win the presidency. I'm an occupational paradox: a college professor who usually leans politically right. That said, I publicly declare an enthusiastic girl-crush on our nation's first lady, Michelle Obama.

My most direct source of fascination with Michelle isn't her obvious love of family or seamless transition into the role of America's First Lady. My ardor is more accurately attributed to her strong sense of self and her redefinition of how our first ladies might dress. While her physical frame communicates power and stature, her individual clothing choices often soften the look. The end result is an overall palette that is balanced through sartorial selections.

Michelle's Image Formula:  Power + Softness = Success

True, Michelle has a law degree from Harvard. But I'd also award her an honorary doctorate in impression management, defined as strategically dressing, grooming, and behaving with the intent to impact/control how others view you. Skeptical? If you've ever dressed in a well-pressed suit for a job interview, worn first-date attire highlighting your physical assets, or opted for a bathing suit with padding here and shirring there to streamline your figure, you've attempted to manage your own image.

Michelle is an effective blend of strength and softness, so let's begin by discussing the former. Certainly, her role as America's First Lady automatically confers ascribed status within the political hierarchy. Physically, she's tall, striking, and possesses buff arms that could be mistaken as sculptural art. If she entered a room-any room-you'd notice her presence immediately because of these packaged nonverbal cues. If she were then to speak with the confidence that is her usual conversational norm (verbal cue), the power is subsequently magnified.

First Lady Status + Tall Height + Toned Figure + Articulate Speech = Authority

Too strong a presence, however, and you trigger a flipside: A presence that can intimidate and overwhelm. Michelle has therefore adopted strategies for communicating softness and approachability. While some techniques no doubt come genuinely (she's a natural hugger), I suspect others have been deliberately employed to achieve a desired effect. She's frequently wears sweaters, which, because of their soft fabric, communicate warmth and ease. She's also partial to vibrant jewel-toned colors which convey energy, animation, and a sense of optimism. The jewelry she sports has been on occasion elegant and high-end. But more often than not, she's wearing friendlier floral-shaped pins in the down-home texture of paper mache.

Interestingly, there's a reason Michelle eschewed a structured suit in a dark color while speaking at the Democratic National Convention. To the contrary, she opted for a knit dress in a friendly shade of turquoise, accessorized by a playfully-colored pin, and a curved hairstyle softly framing her face. If her intent was to project a confident yet relatable presence (and it was), mission accomplished.

Soft Fabric + Friendly Colors + Playfully Novel Jewelry + Touch Behavior = Approachability

I like that Michelle wears shorts while walking Bo on the White House lawn and vacationing in the oppressive heat of the Grand Canyon. But I also sigh with appreciation when I see her sporting a classic sheath dress in fire-engine red during the Medal of Freedom award ceremony. Man, she rocks that look. If I sound like someone who has a slight crush on our first lady, it's only because I do. As a professional image consultant, her authentic display of personal style and her "strong but soft" image allows me no other choice.

© 2009 The Image Establishment, All Rights Reserved

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About the Author

LisaMarie Luccioni, MA, AICI, CIP

LisaMarie Luccioni is an adjunct professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati, a business etiquette expert, and one of 100 Certified Image Professionals in the United States

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