Recently, the unquestionably accomplished First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to a group of children in the East Room of the White House for Take-Our-Daughters-And-Sons-To-Work Day.
Few people are better representatives of hard work than Ms. Obama, and, as one could reasonably expect, she was direct about the effort she put into achieving success. Ms. Obama recounted working hard as a student from childhood through law school, and spoke of developing her career as an adult.
She remained confident about her chronicle until she was hit with one little question that revealed her weakness: “How old are you?”
To her credit, Ms. Obama took the question in relative stride, laughing and answering honestly (she’s 51). After Anaya Brodie, the girl who asked the question, responded, “You’re too young for a 51-year-old,” Ms. Obama invited her to the stage for a hug. The press immediately interpreted this moment as a breaking news story.
In an apt analysis of the norms against asking women their age, Natalie Jennings from The Washington Post wrote, “Brodie asked a question that would have seemed rude coming from a less-adorable source: ‘How old are you?’” How striking that a compliment on Ms. Obama’s youthful appearance created the most significant, newsworthy moment out of talk centered around her accomplishments!
While the episode of a child transgressing social norms with one of the most guarded and influential figures of our time certainly makes a great human interest piece, the press missed a more disturbing part of the conversation: its inescapable gendered structure.
The transcript of the event reveals that Ms. Obama made clear distinctions between the boys and girls in her audience by explicitly stating that she would alternately call on boys and girls. This does seem to be a pointed effort toward gender equity, but it also cements an obvious gender binary that communicates gender identity is fundamental to social function (let it be noted that I wish to take no stance on the efficacy of a gender binary).
Ms. Obama then qualifies what might otherwise be a harmless binary: While she identifies both boys and girls on whom she calls to ask questions by their clothes, she frequently adds beauty qualifiers to the descriptions of the girls. “The young lady way in the back with the pretty head — what’s that on your head? That’s so pretty,” she kindly tells one girl, and addresses another by saying, “Right here in the pretty — yeah. What’s your name?” The boys in the audience never received such acknowledgements of their appearances.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with complimenting a human — man or woman, adult, or child — but it is dangerous to compliment only one gender on their appearance. Ms. Obama, while in an effort to be motherly and warm, perpetuated the gendered expectations that hurt her otherwise-feminist conversation.
By complimenting girls on their appearances and not boys, she reinforced ideas that girls must be beautiful, and boys don’t have to be. Those girls might be asking questions on par with their male peers’, but they will be addressed as beautiful first. Even more striking, Ms. Obama’s reaction to the comment about her youthful appearance belies her ineffable self-confidence: She, too, has been conditioned into believing her looks validate her value as a woman.
She set the stage for a future generation of girls to become more ecstatic over being told they look youthful at age 51 instead of being appreciated for their hard work and personal success. Again, Ms. Obama obviously was well-intentioned — but then, so are the rest of us when we compliment girls. It’s time that we reevaluate how we’re complimenting them from the beginning, and teach them early on that their value comes from something other than how pretty that accessory on their hair is.
Caitlin Lansing is a 2014 graduate of Princeton University, where an adamant belief that “freak shows turned into beauty pageants” propelled her to write a 90-page history thesis about it. A former dancer and college cheerleader, she is no stranger to body scrutiny, and seeks to challenge the idea that one’s worth is intimately tied to appearance.