Racism, Sexism and Michelle Obama

This morning as I drove to work, I caught a brief interview by Ari Shapiro on National Public Radio. He was talking to a woman attending a Romney event and her comments about Michelle Obama were troubling.

First of all, she stated that Michelle Obama doesn’t “look like a first lady.”  When pressed to explain this statement with its obvious racial overtones, she responded, “Can you imagine the Kennedys or the Bushes doing push-ups on the floor? I mean, you know, that’s just not a first lady.”

Besides lacking eloquence, her statement is ignorant and embarrassingly shallow. (And is it just me, or does this woman sound like a man? Listen for yourself.)

I’m glad she brought up the Kennedys. Let’s look at an article John Kennedy wrote for Sports Illustrated back in 1960 about the importance of physical activity in terms of the safety and well-being of our country. Kennedy writes:

“But the harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies—whose physical fitness is not what it should be—who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation….For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.”

Current neuroscience affirms Kennedy’s assertions. Physical activity is good for not only the body, but also the brain. Research demonstrates that students who engage in physical activity have higher IQs and receive better scores on standardized tests. If you don’t believe me, read Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark or Carla Hannaford’s book Smart Moves.

But this goes deeper than that. This is about expectations, women’s roles, and some archaic notions of femininity.  I’m sure this woman wasn’t offended by George Bush jogging in a tank top and shorts. Why was it such an affront to see the first lady wearing shorts?

And furthermore, why is physicality somehow incongruous with femininity?  Should women simply be quiet and nice to look at? That doesn’t fit my definition of femininity. The women I admire are strong; physically and mentally. They challenge me to be a better person and they continually challenge themselves to be better, too. They love the work they do and want to make the world a better place. They are brilliant writers, professors, administrative assistants, students, artists, Olympians, attorneys, CPAs, mothers, wives, nurses, church leaders, and coaches. They speak up when they see injustice and they demand excellence.

Rather than paying any attention to racist and sexist comments, let’s hope the first lady keeps working out and building strong bones. Let’s hope she doesn’t fall and fracture her hip and sacrum like Nancy Reagan did. (Oh, and speaking of the Reagans, research indicates that Alzheimer’s can be postponed or even prevented with exercise.) Let’s hope that she continues to be a strong, fit role model for Americans. After all, according to the  Center for Disease Control, over 1/3 of the US population is obese. You can look at that as an aesthetic issue, or you can look at it for what it will undoubtedly become: the demise of our health care system and our ability to compete as a nation.  Your choice.

Women readers have another choice: you can buck societal conventions and be strong, healthy and powerful. You can redefine femininity on your own terms and you can tackle problems that plague your community, your country, or humanity in general. You can, as Marge Piercey says, “Be of Use.” Or perhaps you would prefer to be an attractive accessory. What will it be?

I live on a 20-acre ranch with my husband. He doesn’t think it’s manly when I help him with chores or lift heavy items. He doesn’t think it is unseemly that I can do more pull ups than he can. In fact, he thinks it is hot.


About The Author

Amy Scott

Amy Scott Erickson has a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She is currently the dean of the Health Fitness Specialist degree at Globe University and is a certified Muscle Activation Techniques Specialist. Prior to her role as a dean, Amy was a rowing coach and recruiting coordinator for the University of Texas and the Head Strength & Conditioning coach for the University of Minnesota Women’s Athletic Department. A former Division I athlete, Amy now enjoys cycling, aerial yoga, strength training and is considering taking up rodeo as a new sport.