From the moment Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama emerged on the national stage, it was pretty difficult not to be impressed with her overall badness.
Be it her immaculate educational pedigree (she graduated both Princeton and Harvard Law) or her solid work as a lawyer and later as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, our soon to be former First Lady was an undeniable force to be reckoned with.
Though she battled her share of critics and foes early on, she’s continually kept us in awe during the last eight years with her brains, brilliance and style. Her effortless juggling of motherhood, marriage and total world adoration became for many of us— life goals.
Still, as commanding as her professional resume is and as inspiring as her presentation, initiatives and rousing speeches always are, there’s one factor in the meaning of Michelle Obama that has had a quiet yet deeply impactful influence on her image, her long term legacy and black women as a whole.
The color of her skin.
Yes, Michelle is African American but as we all know—“Black” has many meanings and also comes in a vast variety of shades, undertones and hues. Since the days of slavery and the creation of the “house Negro” and the “field Negro,” the lighter a person of color is (particularly women), the more desirable they were considered, first by traditional European standards and eventually our own. Over the years that sentiment has been reflected if not re-enforced by our sometimes harsh critique of one another, between the pages of glossy magazine spreads and, more often not, on the arms of Black America’s most prominent and visible men.
Though the 1970s saw the symbolic rise of Afros, “Black Is Beautiful” pride and the flyness of Pam Grier, the constant ideal of beauty never veered far from the long-time European ideal. Long hair, sharp chiseled features and light skin remained the undisputed gold standard.
Over the course of the last three decades, the attitude towards colorism has wavered to some extent but never completely disappeared. Music videos of the 80s and 90s were largely layered with the faces of women who probably had to take a “brown paper bag test” to get cast.
While there were scatterings of complaints from viewers, the hugely popular video trend seemed to only pick up steam as the 90s came to a close and the 21st century officially arrived. Adding fuel to that fire were the numerous rappers who proudly touted the beauty of “redbone,” or women of ethnicities that were not black in their rhymes.
A few prominent rappers even went so far as to boldly elaborate on their preferences in interviews. Kanye West once famously declared that he and most of his rapper friends preferred “mutts,”—women of interracial heritage as opposed to regular black women. The fact that his mother, celebrated college professor Donda West, and most of the other women in his family bear little resemblance to his preference didn’t seem to factor much into the equation.
But that was all before Michelle Obama and the skin she’s in.
Before Michelle there wasn’t Kerry Washington or Viola Davis gracing our nightly television shows as leading ladies in all their mahogany wonder. Before Michelle there were very few high-end fashion magazines that dared to offer back-to-back covers featuring the most famous women of color. In the last six months alone, the faces of Washington, Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Aja Naomi King, Beyoncé and Rihanna have all had their portraits front and center on Vogue, W, Elle and Marie Claire magazines. They showcased beautiful women of color whose skin tones vividly range from one end of the color spectrum to the other.
Some might say it was Michelle’s arrival on the world stage that gave print media and Hollywood a permission of sorts (or perhaps forced them) to showcase black women with darker hues as smart, sexy beings—able to gain the attention and affection of both black and white suitors while leading multi-dimensional, fascinating lives—lives that had no place/use for stereotypically angry attitudes, constant bickering among friends and out and out fist fights for the whole world to see.
Many could argue that just Michelle’s mere presence forced the world to offer a different narrative of women of color and that her 20-year love affair with her husband Barack shined a bright light on the meaning of black love and with an intimate visual of what that love actually looked like in real time. Who will ever forget the many adoring, if not awe struck glances the leader of the free world often gave his beautiful brown wife Michelle at state dinners and other worldwide events? Talk about life goals.
Allison Samuels is an award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Variety, Essence, Newsweek and Ebony magazines. She is author of three books including 2012’s What Would Michelle Do?: A Modern-Day Guide to Living with Substance and Style.