Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic Convention last year. (Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Last week, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons released new data about the number of cosmetic procedures performed in the US in 2012. Among the nose jobs, breast augmentations and rising numbers of men getting facelifts, there's a new trend: brachioplasty, or upper arm lift. The number of brachioplasties being performed in the US is now 40 times higher than it was in 2000, with many women citing first lady Michelle Obama as their upper arm idol.
While it's worth pointing out that the sharpest spike in upper arm lifts happened between 2000 to 2006 -- that is, before Mobama's time in the public eye -- there's little wonder why this trend has been attributed to the The First Lady.
Michelle Obama on the cover of Vogue. Photo: Vogue
The first lady has become a style icon in the last few years; she appeared on the cover of Vogue, she turned little-known fashion designers Tracy Reese and Jason Wu into overnight sensations when she donned their dresses, and when she wore steel-blue nail polish at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year, it spawned a national trend among Obama supporters.
And then, of course, there are her “guns”. Since she moved into the White House, the first lady's toned, muscular arms have stirred up pretend controversy and inspired real admiration. Those fashion designers she loves make her dresses that showcase her arms and shoulders (and predictably, she's been accused of showing too much skin and of showing off her body). Her arms even have their own unofficial blog and Twitter handle.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that American women are resorting to surgery to get “MObama arms” for themselves.
My first reaction, as a feminist, is to lament that tens of millions of people, 91 per cent of them women, are getting plastic surgery to “fix” the “flaws” on their bodies: their small breasts, their wrinkles, their “unacceptably” un-toned arms. We ought to bemoan the power of the feminine beauty ideal, so narrow that the only way to approximate it is to slice oneself open, and so compelling that people are willing to collectively spend $11 billion a year for that slicing.
And yet, there is something remarkable about Michelle Obama, an African-American woman, being considered so attractive that women will undergo surgery to resemble her. In a country where African-American women have for so long been considered unattractive by default, this is, in some ways, a mark of increasing racial equality.
In the US, as in Australia, the dominant idea of feminine beauty is white. The faces – and bodies – of “beautiful” women in America are still, overwhelmingly, white. A glance at the newsstands in any given week is greeted with a host of white starlets, with the occasional splash of colour. Only a handful of black actresses have won Academy Awards in the nearly century-long history of the event. Vanity Fair's annual “young Hollywood” issue is notoriously, outrageously devoid of people of colour. The runways at New York Fashion Week are similarly lacking in melanin. The Miss America pageant didn't start admitting black women until the 1970s, when its prestige was already waning, and it didn't crown its first black Miss America until 1984. Only six other black women have won the title since. The black women who make it in the mainstream tend to be fair-skinned, with “Anglo” facial features and slight frames, like Halle Berry. Some will argue that megastar Beyonce is an exception to this rule, and they are correct, but only because Beyonce is exceptional in almost every way. As a rule, beautiful is white, and anything else is considered “exotic”, or in the case of dark-skinned black women with “typically black” facial features, outright unattractive.
Feminists have long argued that none of these people – models, actresses, beauty queens, starlets, valued for the curvature of their stomachs rather than the content of their character – should be serving as role models to girls and young women. We argue that the one-size-fits-all vision of beauty they represent is harmful to women, and so it is. We bristle when we see Michelle Obama held up as a fashion and fitness icon, while her Princeton and Harvard law degrees go unmentioned. But just as there is something remarkable about Michelle Obama being the “Mom in Chief” in a country whose culture has for so long demonised black motherhood, there is something to be said for that vision of beauty expanding to include women who look like Michelle Obama. Decades after radical women of colour declared that “black is beautiful”, the women of America, it seems, are finally beginning to agree.
And yet, this tension persists. Does the shift in what's considered beautiful mark a loosening of strictures, or just one more way in which women have to measure up to the ideal? Does it mean that more women will be considered beautiful, or that women will have one more body part they're expected to monitor, and tone, and despise, and cut open? The reality is that very few women look like Michelle Obama, as shown by the number of them resorting to plastic surgery in order to come close. How do we embrace the increasing diversity of that feminine beauty ideal, which now includes black skin and muscular arms, when what we really want is to do away with that ideal altogether?
Body image activists and advocates are fond of the mantra, “there is no wrong way to have a body”, and they're right. This change is a sign of cultural progress, but it's not the revolution we so desperately need. Yes, it is a welcome shift that Michelle Obama and her “guns” are now considered so attractive, so worthy of emulation. But it isn't enough to simply make a restrictive, damaging ideal slightly less restrictive and damaging. We need to smash the whole damn thing. And we don't need Michelle Obama's muscle tone to do that.