Headcase: The Body Politic

Michelle Obama speaks through fashion.

By Matthew Hutson, published November 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Google Michelle Obama. Between wikipedia.org and whitehouse.gov, is mrs-o.org, a site that lets you "Follow the fashion of Mrs.O: what and whom she's wearing." It's merely the tip of our national obsession with how the first lady looks. And it may be hurting America.

In a study, men and women rated Michelle, but not Barack, as less warm after evaluating the appearances of each. Other studies by the researchers—Nathan Heflick and colleagues at the University of South Florida—found that focusing on a woman's appearance lowers ratings of her competence, too. "It's easier to reduce a woman than a man to just her appearance because that's what we're used to doing," Heflick says. Perhaps worse, it's been shown that women objectify even themselves when focusing on their own looks—and live down to expectations by performing worse on tests.

So being called the "First Lady of Fashion" by ABC News might not enable Michelle in her role as a policy advocate. (Her key issues include literacy, military-family aid, and workplace equality.)

Or maybe it does. "The first lady has a very particular political function," says Catherine Allgor, a historian at UC Riverside. "And that is to serve as an embodiment of her husband's administration. Style is the manifestation of substance." So while her election-night dress said, "I'm hip," her Gap T-shirts say, "I'm one of you." And those toned biceps: "Don't tread on me."