Iman: Michelle Obama “Not a Great Beauty”
Well, the article was about her. She was talking about herself, because Iman is now 53. The statement seemed rather innocuous at first look. But how she said it about the First Lady rankles me, and has pissed off hundreds from HuffPo to Jack and Jill Politics. It’s brought back that old color controversy about whether white-featured black women are more beautiful (and acceptable) than African-featured black women. If you don’t get Parade Magazine as your Sunday supplement in the paper, here is what she said:
“Mrs. Obama is not a great beauty, ” Iman says, startling [the author] a bit. “But she is so interesting looking and so bright. That will always take you farther. When you are a great beauty, it’s always downhill for you. If you’re someone like Mrs. Obama, you just get better with age.”
Oh, well. Looks like I’m going to stop using her make-up products from the big girl shop.
In comparison to those who want to rush for Iman’s throat, I have to agree. Michelle Obama is not what I call a beauty. I don’t worship Michelle as some blacks do, although I will definitely praise how she looks or what she says. I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable, however, of the way in which Michelle, 47, is being packaged for the populace, to the point that we may not know what the woman truly feels and thinks, and she won’t step away from script, as when she said she was proud of her country.
Michelle is, however, an attractive, magnetic woman, who has more than just facial, but physical and intellectual looks and presence to offer the eye and mind. That being said, I object to Iman’s, “But she is so interesting looking and so bright,” because it seems condescending (“bright”?), as if she is complimenting a small, errant child for pulling a surprise. As if Michelle’s “smarts” will rescue her “interesting” but un-beautiful looks from oblivion. Meh. This also reminds me of what womanist Barbara Smith once said:
We discovered that all of us, because we were “smart” had also been considered “ugly,” i.e., “smart-ugly. “Smart-ugly” crystallized the way in which most of us had been forced to develop our intellects at great cost to our “social” lives.
Yet attractive, athletic, goal-oriented and “smart-ugly” Michelle was demonstrably a pearl of great price, all the way through Princeton and Harvard and beyond. She did not want to settle for less, whether in the workplace or in her personal life. And Iman’s remarks fit the behaviors known as internalized racism and looksism.
What do I think of Iman? I don’t think of her as a great beauty. I didn’t think of her as such when she was a super model in the Seventies and when she graduated to films in the Eighties. People make a big deal out of models as being paragons of beauty, but my impression is that many concern themselves with their looks too much to develop their minds, if not their hearts. She may be a citizen of the United States, and she may call herself and her daughter Zuleikha Haywood African Americans, but she was born a Somali, and even Ethiopians, Somalis, and Eritreans have color issues along with ethnic and clan disputes. Even immigrant Africans and African Americans do not always get along or connect with each other.
My ideas of beauty about women or about men or about myself can be such a private matter, and yet, they can also be a public one, since I show my face everyday to strangers, friends, and family members. I resemble my father, and variously, my grandmother; I’ve always been a voluptuous and large woman; my nose is big, my hair is thick, soft, and very curly and African. Nappy. Therefore, there is little softness to my features that would make me into a type preferred and favored in this country. And frankly, I’ve formed my own idea about how I want to look, to dress, to act, and to react, regardless of this standard, regardless of how acceptable or not this makes me. I think that this is a standard that Michelle Obama has also negotiated, ignored, and discarded as well in her life.
Black (and some white) people may well question why someone like Barack Obama chose a dark-skinned black woman as his missus, rather than a light-skinned black woman or a white woman to the nth degree. And now she’s First Lady of the United States, her own fashion statement, an arbiter of taste and style. It only comes to one irrefutable thing: that it’s always what’s within.