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Michelle Obama and the Politics of Hair

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Michelle Obama wears her hair in flips and bobs reminiscent of Kennedy First Lady Jackie O and of June Cleaver, the ’60s suburban housewife of Leave It to Beaver fame.

In her own role as potential First Lady, Michelle Obama’s hair is politically correct.

America expects the wife of Barack Obama, the man who wants to be president, to project an image of sophistication and near perfection. That image includes having hair that doesn’t make waves.

“As potentially half of the public face of America, Ms. Obama in locks or cornrows would be a bit too ‘in your face,’ even with her Harvard degree and her attorney status,” says Arizona State University English Professor Neal A. Lester, who studies African-American literature and culture and has written about black hair issues.

Mainstream America considers styles that reflect the European aesthetic more acceptable and less likely to offend. Hairstyles with African roots don’t get the same respect. To say someone has a nappy head is considered an insult, and the word “nappy,” which merely describes the kinky texture of hair, is practically considered a profanity. In polite circles, the word is euphemistically referred to as “natural.”

Natural hair wearers have seen their politics; patriotism and even their hygiene come under attack. Their Afros, braids, locks and twists have been considered unprofessional, and many who have worn the styles have been demoted or have lost their jobs. Wearers of natural hairstyles also have not escaped being labeled subversive or being perceived as social misfits.

The media is fully aware of how certain hairstyles worn by African-Americans can feed negative stereotypes.

Case in point. The July 21 issue of The New Yorker magazine has on its cover a satirical cartoon showing Barack Obama dressed in Muslim garb as a way of suggesting that he is a terrorist. Michelle, his wife, is depicted wearing combat boots and fashionable fatigues, toting an AK-47 and bumping fists with her husband in an African-American salute of solidarity known as “the dap.” The hairstyle that cartoonist Barry Blitt choose to round out Michelle’s angry-black-radical-and-revolutionary woman’s image is a billowing Afro, a la Angela Davis.

Michelle Obama’s real life hairstyle plays it safe. Intended or unintended, it is decidedly apolitical.

“This is no different from Condoleezza Rice and her visits to the beauty salon for her perms these many years,” says Lester of Arizona State.

“There is a reason that Oprah, Beyonce, Mo’Nique, Patti LaBelle, Tyra, and Queen Latifah haven’t gone the way of Whoopi Goldberg. The reason is that there is clearly a public persona that makes these women culturally less threatening with straightened hair.

“I am not saying that these women are betraying their blackness. I am saying that the pattern of self-acceptance has not made its way into the realm of unstraightened hair.”

Elizabeth Wellington, fashion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, describes Michelle Obama’s hairstyle as “nebulous.”

“It can be the style of a Democrat or a Republican,” says Wellington who is African-American and happens to wear locks. “If she wore her hair naturally, it would freak out segments of America. Her hairstyle is what people think is acceptable, even black people. Locks and natural hair do not carry that kind of cache.”

Despite longstanding negative perceptions about natural hairstyles, prominent black female politicians have sported the look over the years and kept their seats. In the UK, Dawn Butler and her locks have served on the British Parliament since 2005. In the U.S., Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Congress, had a long run with cornrows before going back to a relaxed style. And several other longtime members wear or have worn Afrocentric styles. D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and the late Texas representative Barbara Jordan dared to wear Afros during the 1970s, when the style was widely viewed as a symbol of militancy and an unabashed expression of cultural pride. Norton, who still remains firmly rooted in Congress, has even touted the virtues of wearing natural hair publicly.

“Nothing is more liberating than letting your hair be naturally what your hair is,” she said during a National Public Radio interview several years ago.

The signature natural hairstyle of Cynthia McKinney, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Georgia, was two thick braids wrapped around her head. Washington Post Fashion columnist Robin Givhan has suggested that McKinney, who is savvy to the politics of black hair, used that particular style to project a certain image.

“The style seemed calculated to portray her as the underdog,” Givhan wrote in a column about her last year. She wrote that McKinney’s style was “purposefully out of fashion. Aggressively not slick, ostentatiously humble.”

When McKinney finally retired her braids and started wearing a natural “twist out” style, the litany of comments on blogs and in the media were derogatory and laced with harsh racial overtones.

One of the most offensive remarks was made by syndicated radio commentator and Libertarian Neal Boortz.

During comments about an incident (March 29, 2007) in which McKinney reportedly struck a Capitol Hill police officer while trying to pass a security checkpoint, Boortz said that her new hairdo made her “look like a ghetto slut.”

As much as natural hairstyles get people all worked up, there is no evidence that political wives who wear them can derail their husband’s political aspirations.

Philadelphia’s personable First Lady Lisa Nutter, who has been described as a woman with class, wore locks while her husband Michael served on the city council and didn’t bother to cut or conceal them when he decided to run for mayor. He won handily, and when African-American women of power, influence and success are mentioned in the media, Lisa’s name has shared billing with the likes of Oprah and Michelle.

To roughly paraphrase a line by songstress India.Arie, Michelle is not her hair.

Whether she continues to flaunt the flip like First Lady Kennedy during the presidential campaign or decides to start locks like the First Lady in Philly, her real character should not be superficially determined by what she wears on top of her head.

It should be determined by the intelligence that dwells within it.

Photo courtesy of NaturallyCurly


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