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The Right to Bare Arms

Remember Kim Carnes and the deadly, unending re-playing of “Bette Davis Eyes”? If you can’t—and as I age I realize there are those of you who were spared an adolescence of the “Baker Street,” ”Open Arms,” and ”Urgent, Urgent Emergency” soundtrack—you ought to count your blessings. But if you’re of an age when each time you turned on the radio you got sucker-punched by Kim Carnes channeling Rod Stewart (a duo made in heaven, if you think about it) then you might be able to understand why Michelle Obama’s arms are becoming the new Bette Davis eyes.

Google them. Her arms are everywhere. They scandalize. They inspire. They distract.

Or, to quote “Bette Davis Eyes”:


And she’ll tease you

she’ll unease you.

All the better just to please you.

She’s precocious and she knows just what

it takes to make a pro blush

She’s got M. Obama’s Arms.

And what a response they elicit. Chicago Tribune style reporter Wendy Donahue opined about the First Lady’s attire at the President’s first congressional address, “the season is winter, the occasion was business and a sleeveless dress was the wrong style at the wrong time.”

Fashion historians were quick to point out that Jackie Kennedy wore sleeveless dresses—one during a State of the Union address, if you can believe such effrontery!

M. Obama’s Arms elicit the analysis of cultural anthropologists. One claims the public’s response is sexist (as if after the public response to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s headbands and ankles we don’t recognize sexism when we see it.) Another claims it’s racist, inadvertently summoning a stereotype that defines black women as emasculating and angry—not First Ladylike enough.

William Jelani Cobb, a professor of American history at Spelman College, thinks the uproar over “armgate” indicates something malicious is afoot because people feel threatened by an accomplished black woman who’s an imposing 5 feet, 10 inches tall.

And Maureen Dowd, always good for her thoughtful commentary, said, “It is Michelle who looks as though she could easily wind up and punch out Rush Limbaugh, Bernie Madoff, and all the corporate creeps who ripped off America.”

This was part of the column that began with her and David Brooks in a cab en route to the British Embassy where they were talking about—no, not Bette Davis eyes, but M. Obama’s Arms.

Or—my personal favorite is this carping comment from the blog momslikeme: “If I came to work with bare arms, I would be sent home to change, or requested to put a sweater/cardigan on. I think Michelle should have done the same. First Lady is a job. If she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have supported her husband’s campaign to be President. Her function isn’t to be the White House fashionista, it’s to be a First Lady. Next time, she needs to cover it up.”

Oh, come on, give me a break. Or give her a break. She didn’t invent the bicep. Or the sleeveless dress. But we’ve just invented Michelle Obama as an icon of both. And maybe that’s OK, right? She doesn’t have to be Carla Bruni Sarkozy, the scantily-clad chanteuse seductively spread across the pages of French fashion magazines.

But can’t we love her for substantive things?

“Mrs. Obama’s super-sculpted arms are the result of years of effort,” writes Jodi Kantor in The Caucus blog. That might more fairly be said of her Harvard law degree.

“In many ways it’s [M. Obama’s Arms] the perfect accessory for the times,” Wendy Donahue concluded. “They cost nothing except maybe a gym membership or a couple of 15-pound [weights] that you can use in your home.”

Lisa Armstrong of the New York Times Online doesn’t agree that arms-as- accessory is low-cost.: “It takes time, effort and probably a bit of money to hone a sightly pair, so maybe toned arms are the new stealth-wealth, non-status status symbol.”

Wow. So-long Coach handbags. Armstrong goes on, “perhaps arms aren’t being sexualized so much as fetishized and anxiously courted as the latest emblems of girl-power and success.”

Hello amended Second Amendment: Give girls the right to bare arms.

But as if all this isn’t silly enough, Mandi Norwood, whose book, Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion, comes out in May, sees Michelle Obama’s arms as essential to the future of the country.

She writes, “toned arms are one of the few signs of youth. . . . When we see our first lady’s arms . . . they just remind us that we have this very youthful presidency in office. . . . If nothing else, we hope the strength and passion of youth will get us through these trying times.”

And Bonnie Fuller on The Huffington Post assures us that “Michelle’s also giving us another not-so-subtle message—she’s strong and tough. Those arms with their well-defined biceps . . . look powerful enough to wrap around a distressed nation and lift it up.”

My, oh, my. She’s got a lot of weight on her shoulders.


And she’ll tease you

she’ll unease you.

All the better just to please you.

She’s precocious and she knows just what

it takes to make a pro blush.

But she’s got M. Obama’s Arms.

—Jo Page

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