Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.
One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.
The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.
To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.
What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.
There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.
Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.
Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.
It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”
But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.
It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.
Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.
Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.
Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.
Dealing With Criticism
And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.
I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.
What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.
All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.
Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.
Becoming A Role Model
Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness.
This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.
In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.
I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.
That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better. It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.