Iman: Michelle Obama “Not a Great Beauty”

Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid Bowie, in a recent photo (Courtesy:

Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid Bowie, in a recent photo (Courtesy:

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.

~ by blksista on May 17, 2009.

18 Responses to “Iman: Michelle Obama “Not a Great Beauty””

  1. lost all respect for IMAN.cnt believe that i had kinda looked up to her!! that was not cool to say bout Mrs Obama!…she sounds like a uneducated fool talkin bout beauty and crap like that! she seems to contradict what she states in all her book n thngs bout being a strong black beautiful women.when shes clearly underming mrs obama like that! Iman i thought u were i jus saw u for who u reali are!..hw sad!


  2. Untill the African-Americans start feeling comfortable with their selves…overcome the inferiority complex. Michelle was never and would never be a great beauty. She’s happy with what she got and learned to appreciate it. Iman’s features are not European but indigenous afro-Asiatic. Its you who thinks they are European and that is your complex. It says a lot about you and your lack of knowledge. Negro features will be beauty when Negroes accept it and stop comparing every thing to European like they still live in the plantation. The problem is the plantation mentality that plagues the Negroes.


    • Iman’s features are not European but indigenous afro-Asiatic. Its you who thinks they are European and that is your complex.

      I think that you are ignorant and misinformed.

      Iman’s features are those that Europeans usually gravitate towards and feel comfortable about. Iman’s features may indeed be Afro-Asian, but they are considered “normative” for whites, who place a lot of value on people who look like them. My features, and those of my brothers and sisters usually aren’t. We are all kinds of West African, as well as European, blends. That’s how–sometimes–some of us feel that we do not fit in this country because a lot rides on fitting…even obtaining a job or a lover.

      Some blacks undergo plastic surgery, skin bleaching and hair weaving–all to obtain these looks.

      It was Iman who brought up this up to the surprise of her interviewer. It was how she stated her impressions that really burned me and a lot of other people up, because we do not wish to dwell on such throwback negativity when it is obvious that the First Lady is admired throughout the country and the world. Michelle Obama looks like a lot of black American women, and for that reflection in the mirror, we can feel renewed pride in ourselves.

      “Negro”? “Negroes”? Either you are masquerading as black or have a strange way of naming yourself…if you are African American.


  3. Michelle Obama is an extremelly beautiful and smart woman.Only a gangsta rapper would choose Iman over mrs Obama.Iman is in tune with african americans mindset:For african americans to be beautiful is to be almost white.That is why Iman is so worshipped by african americans.Even the most average ethiopian woman is given a royal treatment in rap videos.Anyway,Iman has never dissed Hilary clinton or any white star coz she will destroyed.But she had beefs with almost all famous black women,from naomi campbell to tyra banks…etc.Iman is basically a jealous and bitter person who think she most beautiful “black” woman ever when in fact there plenty black women far more beautiful than her.


  4. It seems you cant spell either.


    • “Crique” for critique?

      And I use the Y deliberately when saying a cussword.

      Michelle is dark-skinned. I said she was attractive. And compared to Iman, she is darker. My perspective, my blog.

      Honey, get a life.


  5. 1. Michelle Obama is NOT dark skinned- she has a copper light brown tone.

    2. She is not ugly, she is average lookng, which is perfecly fine.

    3. Iman is not light either.

    Your crique is a bit too exteme.


  6. I think you nailed it on the head, it’s not really about what was said, but more about the manner in which it was delivered. Iman has no reason to strike such a condescending tone and for her to try and switch it up at the end of the statement just made it all the more obvious…..she needs to check herself and realize the power of words before she makes anymore statements.


  7. I agree it seems off for Iman to have suggested Michelle’s looks are lacking and that “bright” seems to be damning by faint praise.

    As Lisa says, though, I’m not sure why if one believes Michelle doesn’t happen to be a great beauty, that one must be making a comment about her not having white features. I think Michelle’s very attractive, as is Cindy McCain, but Alek Wek is a great beauty. Wek’s skin, features, hair are more non-white than Michelle’s, I believe.


  8. To be fair, I think it is really important to understand the tone of what people are saying. Sometimes, that just doesn’t register on paper. Inflection is extremely important for some statements.


  9. For me, beauty is a package deal. People that are narcissistic, shallow, or cold-hearted can never be beautiful, regarless of the exterior.


  10. Also here from Womanist Musings. Wow, that comment really rubbed me the wrong way for reasons I can’t even fully explain. I agree that it does come off as sexist, it’s also really condescending and gives the impression that one can’t be a great beauty and intelligent at the same time. I can understand & accept that not everyone finds Michelle Obama to be a great beauty and that’s fine but calling her “interesting looking” and sort of backhandedly praising her intelligence was just…eck.


  11. Hello there!

    I don’t think that Michelle is a great beauty… but she’s attractive and she works hard to maintain an athletic physique and I think that many women in their 40s have become more inspired to start working out since seeing her toned arms and her commitment to remaining in top shape!

    I am not sure why it’s such a major deal if a black women doesn’t think that another black woman is a great beauty… it’s not a slap on the face for ALL black women…

    It’s just ONE black woman saying what she thinks.

    There are more posts about Michelle being “dark-skinned” by black women than anyone…whites never refer to Michelle as “dark-skinned” and frankly, Michelle isn’t even dark-skinned in person. She looks significantly darker than her husband in photos because he’s biracial. She is not significantly darker than her children or other blacks. And if she were…why…oh why…is that something that we still continue to bring up in conversations?

    Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!


  12. I deplore the idea of women being judged by physical beauty. The way Iman phrases her commentary intelligence is something to fall back on if you are not born with good looks. Her statements reek of internalized sexism.


  13. I saw this title in Womanist Musings’s Blog Roll and I just had to come over to yell out that (I think) Michelle Obama is extremely stunning, magnetic and so very very beautiful. AND she’s a total brainiac and is a georgeous loving/responsible mother to two adorable little girls. This lady is flawless!


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