High school football coach Bob Grisham of Alabama was surreptitiously recorded by one of his students making inappropriate — but, unfortunately, also familiar — comments about the first lady’s body, the Washington Post’s Krissah Thompson reports. “Fat-butt Michelle Obama,” Grisham said. “Look at her. She looks like she weighs 185 or 190. She’s overweight.” (Bonus: He also made disparaging comments about gay people in the same recording. Sounds like a really great role model.)
Out-of-line and hateful remarks about the “Let’s Move” founder’s anatomy are, of course, nothing new. Think Rush Limbaugh’s frequent references to Michelle “My Butt” Obama. And Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner’s apology for discussing her “large posterior.”
But what’s really with the fixation that seems to be especially problematic for white male critics? Using a little historical context, Thompson tries to make sense of a troubling pattern that’s honestly a little hard to make sense of:
“We have a history in this country of white people not showing adequate respect for and devaluing the bodies of black women, and this most definitely falls in line with that,” says Ayana Byrd, the co-editor of the anthology “Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts.” (Grisham, Limbaugh and Sensenbrenner are white men.)
The focus on this first lady’s posterior has historical antecedents. It reaches back to the imagery of Hottentot Venus, a woman from what is now South Africa whose naked body and pronounced posterior were paraded in shows throughout 19th-century Europe. On to the selling and trading of black women’s bodies through slavery. In modern times, black women’s figures continue to be up for public discussion in ways that are celebratory (see: “Brick House” by The Commodores) and insulting (see above).
Michelle Obama — who is 5-foot-11 and praised for her fashion sense, her bangs and her toned biceps — regularly emerges in polls as one of the most popular public figures in the country. (The White House does not discuss her weight.) She has graced magazine covers from Vogue to Better Homes & Gardens. Women’s health magazines have created workouts to help other women get “Michelle Obama arms.”
Her presence as first lady challenges the historic view of a black woman’s place and notions of beauty, says Michaela Angela Davis, a fashion expert who has campaigned for more positive images of black women in the media. “Michelle is black from a distance. She’s a real black girl,” Davis says. “A lot of people have tried to make diversity into this weird beige thing. Her presence is just really powerful to interject into the global consciousness.”
Read more at the Washington Post.