The First Invisible Lady?

If Michelle Obama were wearing fluorescent fuchsia Hammer pants and a furry Kangol, I'd still recognize her. She could be buying breath mints at CVS just for the $20 cash-back offer or sprinting up the left side of the escalator and I'd stop to gawk. She's the first lady of the United States, and I know what she looks like.

Last month an Associated Press photographer snapped a picture of Obama in a Nike hat and shades while she anonymously shopped at a Virginia-area Target. CBS News ran an incongruously serious segment on the paparazzi photo:

"Do you recognize this woman? Yes, in that ball cap, behind those sunglasses, is the first lady of the United States. She spent about half an hour in the store pushing her own cart, but apparently the only person who recognized her was the cashier."

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Really? That's it? The cashier? No one else in the entire mega-store noticed that one of the most recognizable women in the free world was getting her Target on? 

On Wednesday in an interview with Today's Al Roker, Obama confirmed that she likes to "sneak out as much as possible" in an effort to "keep our kids' lives normal.

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"I do that more frequently than people realize, and it's amazing how people don't recognize you. They don't expect to see me at Starbucks or at Chipotle," she said.

"I've been in Baskin-Robbins a number of times. You know how the kids aren't really paying attention. They're looking right through you; they don't know it's me."

Is it just me or is recent "news" that the president's wife, the closest thing Americans have to a royal highness, traipses about unnoticed a bit unsettling? Shouldn't most people with working eyes know what she looks like?

Conservative conspiracy theorists, also known as commenters, might say that because of increasingly hostile political storm clouds gathering around "class warfare," Michelle Obama is simply doing her part to ease tensions. Her down-to-earth sneak attacks, in which she appears as the American Normal Woman, are actually expertly choreographed photo shoots. I doubt that.

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The thing is, she isn't. Try as she might to be a regular Jane, the lady is an icon. In the someone-is-probably-programming-this-right-now Facebook app "Which First Lady Are You?" Michelle's not a Laura or even a Hillary; she's a Jackie.

Even on Today in little makeup, a purple hoodie and black workout pants, she's still a knockout. Which makes this endearing anecdote about her going to Petco less so for me:

"I actually took Bo to Petco, and the cashier asked me, 'Oh, what kind of dog is that?' I said, 'A Portuguese water dog.' He didn't recognize us because he didn't expect that we would be in Petco."

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What strikes me as particularly odd is the public's willingness to let a woman as bold and standout-ish (even in a Nike ball cap) as Michelle sink into the background. Is it because they want her to?

Some may remember the much-talked-about Psychology Today article published last year, "Are Black Women Invisible?" The article explained a study in which researchers wanted to test "the intriguing idea that black women are socially invisible." The results of that study "suggest that black women are more likely than black men or white men and women to go unnoticed by others in a group or social situation."

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And whom does the article mention as one of the hypervisible black women who could possibly change the social construct that says black women aren't recognizable? Michelle Obama.

I know full well that when someone doesn't want to be recognized, they most likely won't be. Ask any celebrity who prefers New York to Los Angeles. But in Michelle Obama's case, the confluence of race, gender, politics and celebrity has blurred the lines between visibility and voluntary blindness. Despite the shades and the hat, I would hope that eventually everyone could look at Michelle's face and actually see her.

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Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

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