No First Lady’s body has been picked apart, criticized and laughed at as much as Michelle Obama’s figure. Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner is the latest public figure to give his two cents on Obama’s body.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), known for his cantankerous ways and for not speaking to media unless it’s his idea, was overheard at the Delta Crown lounge at Reagan National Airport today talking on his cellphone about an incident he said occurred three weeks ago while at an Episcopal church auction. Please note, a church auction. Our source, a Democratic operative who heard the whole thing, said he was “very loud”. Sensenbrenner was overheard saying that after buying all their “crap” (his word) a woman approached him and praised first lady Michelle Obama. He told the woman that Michelle should practice what she preaches — “she lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.”
Realizing her boss put his foot in his mouth, the congressman aide’s responded to the criticism. Amanda Infield said her boss “plans to contact the First Lady’s office to apologize for his comments.”
I can’t say I’m surprised by Sensenbrenner’s comments. The past three years have brought several comments that have ostracized not only Michelle Obama for her curvy figure, but her children for wearing natural hair styles. While there are some who may believe these anti-Michelle Obama critiques are based on her push to change public policy via the Let’s Move campaign, I would be ignoring my womanist roots if I didn’t look at this manner from a race and gender perspective.
The opinions about first ladies historically has been similar to the outdated perception people had about children: they should be seen, but not heard from. It wasn’t until the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama that the public got a chance to get to know the women behind the most powerful men in the country. However, up until 2009, no first lady has ever garnered such hatred and public contempt than Michelle Obama.
I know the feminists will harp on the anti-Hillary Clinton attacks we all witnessed during the 1990s. And I am not going to deny conservatives were pretty damn ruthless towards Hillary Clinton. However, the public denunciation of Michelle Obama embraced by right-wing conservatives has a certain level of subconscious, vile, racist, sexist connotation that black women have historically been subjected to in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. There hasn’t been a systematic campaign to engage in the othering of a first lady until now.
Black women in the spotlight who dare to step outside restrictive stereotypes, whose personality forces one to second guess their preconceived notions about black women and who shuns white America’s social assignment for them is a threat to whiteness and patriarchy. As a highly educated lawyer, Michelle Obama’s success and the public’s ability to witness her success with its own eyes threatens the status quo as whiteness and patriarchy benefits from the controlling, debilitating images of black women as wanton whores, Welfare Queens or mammies. So, it’s no surprise that Rush Limbaugh has referred to Michelle Obama as uppity–a racist label used to remind black folks of their place during the Jim Crow era.
The Obamas are a slap in the face to the controlling images whiteness has created to its benefit. Specifically, Michelle Obama is a walking contradiction to the wanton whore, Welfare Queen or mammy and that contradiction is something the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Jim Sensenbrenner just can’t swallow.
Furthermore, black women’s bodies have been on public display for centuries and whiteness has fought and died for the right to control black women’s bodies, so it’s no surprise these conservative white men feel a sense of ownership over their right to public criticize her curvy shape. Whiteness has fought long and hard to have unequivocal access to black women’s bodies any time they please and Sensenbrenner’s sense of privilege to comment on a married woman’s backside is a reflection of whiteness’ sense of possession over black bodies.
The eroticizing and othering of black women’s bodies is one of many ways whiteness uses to magnify alleged physical inferiority and defects of women of color, specifically black women. By objectifying Michelle Obama’s “large posterior,” Jim Sensenbrenner continues to promote a long-standing sense of otherness whiteness projects upon black women.