Michelle Obama entered the White House as a chimera. To some, she was emblematic of fully realized African-American womanhood and an incomparable fashion icon. To others, she was the voice of racial grievance, the nanny state and Seventh Avenue vanity. She has proved herself to be neither vengeful nor the patron saint of activist feminism. Yet misperceptions linger. So as she celebrates her 50th birthday on Jan. 17, here are a few facts in the face of persistent fictions.
1. Michelle Obama is the most fashion-friendly first lady.
Obama has been a pronounced and polished advocate for American style, seamlessly moving from custom-made evening gowns to mass-market fare. She has made the fashion industry swoon with her willingness to embrace the work of some of its most eccentric players, such as Thom Browne, and its lesser-known talents, such as Isabel Toledo and Duro Olowu. One 2010 study in the Harvard Business Review estimated she could boost a company’s stock 16 percent by wearing its clothes.
Yet other first ladies have had more personal relationships with designers – and opened the White House doors to them in a way Obama has not. Jacqueline Kennedy designated Oleg Cassini her official dressmaker, and the style they created inspired generations of women and designers. Lady Bird Johnson in 1968 hosted a formal fashion show that involved models parading through the State Dining Room as the wives of visiting governors looked on. Nancy Reagan had let’s-meet-for-lunch friendships with several designers, and she received the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s lifetime achievement award – which she accepted in person. In 2005, Laura Bush’s presence at New York’s Fashion Week rippled through the industry like the Second Coming.
Obama has celebrated creativity through the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Awards, but she has maintained distance from the industry. Jason Wu, designer of her two inaugural gowns, didn’t meet her until the first was installed in the Smithsonian a year after she wore it. She doesn’t attend fashion industry events. When Seventh Avenue honored her in 2009, she sent her thanks via video message.
2. She is a food tyrant of Bloombergian intolerance.
The first lady is renowned for her Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity through healthy eating and exercise. One of her first projects upon settling into the East Wing was sowing the White House Kitchen Garden. She even gave out dried fruit on Halloween — President Barack Obama joked that it would get the White House egged.
Her focus on the nation’s eating habits has led to complaints that she wants to deprive Americans of dessert. But Obama repeatedly expresses her belief in moderation, talks about her affection for French fries and unapologetically went in for a 1,700-calorie splurge at Shake Shack in 2011.
As for sweets, the first family’s Thanksgiving last year featured nine types of pie: as righteous a display of dessert democracy as one can get.
3. Her legacy will be Let’s Move or Joining Forces.
Fighting childhood obesity and supporting military families have been the first lady’s most formal and most publicized campaigns. But the guiding principle of her tenure has been a belief in youth mentoring and “paying it forward.”
She introduced mentoring as an institutional commitment at a 2009 lunchtime meeting, pairing 13 Washington area high school girls with top female White House staff members. A similar program for boys came later. In addition to getting personal time with the first lady, the students sat down with Supreme Court justices, met with a curator from the African-American history museum and sampled a state dinner menu while learning about diplomacy.
The same ethos has guided how Obama has positioned herself abroad. At a London school, she described seeing herself in the faces of the students, who were overwhelmingly from disadvantaged backgrounds. The centerpiece of a Mexico City trip was a speech at a Jesuit university, where she said: “We have seen time and again that potential can be found in some of the most unlikely places. My husband and I are living proof of that.”
White House arts workshops, visits to underserved schools and the inclusion of young people at state events are now standard practice and may be her most lasting legacy.
4. She hates Princeton.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s senior thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” was exhumed from the archives of the university and fueled the perception that she detested it. “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before,” she wrote in 1985. “I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second.”
After she declined invitations to return for special events and skipped her 25-year reunion with a reference to a scheduling conflict, speculation about her animosity intensified. Princeton alumni — I’m one — celebrate reunions with ferocity. Skipping one’s 25th? That’s heresy.
Still, there’s no active vitriol. The conclusions of her thesis are nuanced and measured. More than a reprimand of a school struggling with diversity, they explain her determination to stay connected to the black community.
Obama also has not been wholly disengaged from Princeton. She accepted a position on the sociology department’s advisory board in 2005, though the presidential campaign soon kept her from going to meetings. In 2012, she did a fundraiser in the town of Princeton that included university students, alumni and faculty.
Obama has reserved most of her campus speaking for historically black colleges and universities, and schools serving disadvantaged students or military families. She hasn’t delivered an address at her alma mater, but she has upheld its informal motto: “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”
5. She represents an unusual success story.
Her story — as a successful wife, mother and professional who happens to be black — is not unique. The Labor Department estimates that by age 46, almost 70 percent of black men and women have, at some point, been married. According to the last census, 45 percent of black children are raised in two-parent households. More than one-third of employed black women work in professional fields.
But popular culture hasn’t normalized women like Obama. Columbia law professor Patricia Williams laments: “The jurisprudence of the entire 20th century was about black people trying to get into school.” Popular culture, she said, renders the results of that striving “invisible.”
Women like Obama were thriving long before the 2008 election, but a lot of people hadn’t noticed.
Robin Givhan covered Michelle Obama for The Washington Post in 2009 and 2010.
Special to The Washington Post