Just how influential is the stuff that grows out of Michelle Obama's head? Apparently very. So much so that when a doctored photo of the first lady with thick natural curls replacing her usual straightened do hit the Internet last week, online commenters went into overdrive.
Reactions to Mrs. Obama's faked 'fro ranged from "I dig the curly curls BUT not right now" to "I would love love LOVE to see the first lady rockin' a natural 'do." Natural-hair proselytizers and pro-weave wearers alike expressed a swelling sense of pride and perhaps more than a little bit of that Obama-branded hope upon seeing what the first lady could look like with a buxom head of hair.
Beauty blogger Patrice Yursik's first reaction to the online fervor was that same swelling of pride and also a little sympathy for those who mistook the photoshopped image for the real thing: "It made me realize how extremely gullible the Internet is, but it was a charming kind of gullible.
"That image gave so many people a burst of happiness and hope. It's not just hair for us," explained Yursik, creator of Afrobella.com, a site that celebrates African-American beauty in all its forms.
More than a century after the invention of the hot comb, black women's hair continues to carry a political message. From the natural to the Afro to braids and locks, a black woman's hair has always stood for more than just a day at the salon.
Image activist and former Essence fashion editor Michaela Angela Davis explained, "Our hair is an entry point for all our history, pride and pain. That's why you get such a huge reaction when a black woman just changes [her] hair. Who else goes through that? I don't know of any other culture whose hair carries politics like ours."
Indeed, during the 2008 presidential campaign, when the New Yorker decided to portray the first lady on its cover as a militant, she was illustrated with an oversized Afro, along with combat boots and an assault rifle.
That alone was proof for Yursik that last week's snapshot of Michelle Obama with a head of thick natural curls wasn't real. "She can't change her hair without attracting the attention of the entire world."
The first lady's style has been tracked since she first stepped onto the national stage four years ago. While she campaigned with her then-senator husband, Barack Obama, Mrs. Obama's style trended toward more classic and conservative styles, said Davis.
Remember when the Obamas appeared together at a victory rally in South Carolina in 2008? Michelle was wearing a pink St. John-esque skirt suit and mod flip in her shoulder-length hair. Back then, fashion writers were comparing Michelle O. to Jackie O. But since the Obamas entered Washington — arguably one of the most conservative towns in the country when it comes to fashion choices (blue tie or red?) — Michelle's style has surprisingly evolved to become even more modern and progressive.
"She's coming out of the White House with more swag than she walked in with," said Davis. "I don't think that when they leave, all of a sudden she's going to start rocking her hair's natural texture. She's classic chic, yet modern and innovative."
For Davis, whose mission is to promote positive depictions of black women through image activism, the picture of the first black first lady with a natural hairstyle is powerful because it sends the message that Michelle can "define herself."
"Isn't it amazing that Michelle Obama can go from this to that in terms of her hair and still be fly?" asked Davis. "We have that range. Blackness is that big."
For People.com style editor Janet Mock, who gets recognized on the street because of her natural curls, the image of Michelle with big hair made sense. To Mock, the first lady is defined by how she handles the space she occupies, both literally and symbolically.
"Mrs. Obama gracefully handles taking up more space, and it goes beyond hair," explained Mock. "It's her height, her curves, her eyes, her voice. I just wanted more of her, and that hair was giving me more of her, and symbolically more of all of us — 'us' meaning brown girls who feel there isn't enough space for us."
Mock said she believes that black women, instead of seeking validation, are just excited about images that reflect them at their best.
"Nothing's wrong with longing to have someone of the first lady's stature look even more like you," said Mock, who began embracing her natural texture after watching Oprah Winfrey's TV adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and relating to main character Janie Crawford's "heavy" and "plentiful" hair.
"I was 15 years old, and Janie's long, wavy hair urged me to embrace my natural curl," said Mock, who as a teenager used a flatiron on her hair every day before school because she wanted to look more like a Destiny's Child-era Beyoncé.
So what does the depiction of the first lady in a 'fro, whether faked or not, really mean? In the end, according to Yursik, it diminishes the authority of a standard of beauty that not all black women conform to.
"The reaction just proved that we are so hungry for someone like Michelle Obama, Oprah or even Beyoncé to go natural, hoping that it validates our own decision and our own beauty," said Yursik. "All you have to do is look in the mirror. It's right there."