On Why Michelle Obama Isn’t My Role Model


Ever since I was young I have worried about my curly hair. I don’t mean curls as in “waves” or “loose loops when you wake up in the morning.” I mean Curls. With a capital “C”—the kind people stick forks in when you are not looking. The kind that are not brushed.

Even while my family lived in Tanzania—a country filled with Curls—I noticed how all of the Disney princesses had straight, frizz-free hair. Then we moved to a small town in Arizona and my hair became my distinguishing feature. Kinder people said they loved my hair but would not want it for themselves. Crueler middle schoolers said it looked like a poodle’s butt.

Inevitably, I was a straight-haired character for Halloween each year and would get upset when I didn’t look quite right. My dance coach would become exasperated, following me around with hairspray to make my hair gel like the rest of the team’s. In high school, I spent innumerous hours and hundreds of dollars trying to make my hair straight. Even when I was crowned prom queen, I didn’t feel comfortable wearing my own curls—I made sure to straighten and then curl my hair so it looked like everyone else’s.

When I came to college, I was yet again reminded that my curly hair categorized me as “other.” When people could not remember my name, they would refer to me as the “ethnic girl,” or a friend would smile sweetly and say, “You would look so beautiful if you let me straighten your hair.” As I cheered in the student section of basketball games, filled with school spirit, I would look down and notice that all the girls on the court had straightened hair. The cheerleaders, the baton twirlers, and even the pomline girls left their hair down and threw it around wildly.

I finally came to terms with my hair as part of my identity. My mom has even curlier hair than I do and when I look into the mirror I see bits of my family in each curl. But I cannot blame any of the people who told me I would look better with straight hair. (Well, maybe the boys that likened my hair to a poodle’s butt.) After all, what glamorous women have curly hair?

Beyoncé, a strong, curly-haired woman in the public eye, almost never wears her hair naturally. In fact, the media was shocked to see her baby daughter with a wild mane. They taunted her for not taking better care of her daughter’s hair; she was criticized for not doing something about the “nappy” ‘do.

Americans seem to believe so strongly, in fact, in their civic duty to protect Beyoncé’s daughter from this grand injustice that they created an anti-Blue Ivy's hair petition, with over five thousand signatures.

Quotes from the concerned include this insight from Nancy Kondo in Toronto:

Because no child who’s mom spends thousands on her hair (monthly) should live life looking like a sheep.

and this gem from Cassie Lee in Rockville:

I hate when a mother looks like a million dollars with their hair all done and the child looks like they haven’t seen a comb since they were born.

While I appreciate Cassie’s concern for Blue Ivy’s afro, her comment exemplifies the problem with our Euro-centric vision of beauty. Most people with extremely curly hair don’t ever brush it. If you think you saw frizz when Blue Ivy poses with Beyoncé for the tabloids, just wait until you see it after a comb has been run through it.

Ebony Holder, another concerned citizen from the Bronx, noted:

 She is going to be teased and bullied when she becomes a teenager. PLEASE COMB HER HAIR :(

In a way, Ebony is right. We should be worried about Blue Ivy being teased by people who do not like her hair—particularly those who would think more highly of her if she straightens it.

Despite all of these heartbreaking comments (which I hope the petition creator destroys before Blue Ivy grows old enough to find it), the real tragedy was Beyoncé’s lack of reaction at the time. My question is: Where’s the petition asking Beyoncé leave her own hair as it is and be a role model for Blue Ivy? Where can we find pride in our looks if not in the parents who gave them to us?

This discrimination is particularly sad when the target of the attacks is a toddler. But it is not a new story. Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old American Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, was rewarded the night of her victory by a vicious onslaught of online hair-haters. Despite having straightened her hair to the point that there was not a single curl left, there was a public uproar about her bun, which the world determined was sloppy. After her win, the teenager told the Associated Press,“I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair... I just made history and people are focused on my hair?”

Gabby and Blue Ivy’s stories disturbed me, but it wasn’t until a week ago at the gym that I decided I needed to write this article.

Last Thursday night I found myself watching the news and sweating over the stationary bike. There was a special on about Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move” program. The video clip showed her walking into a school to surprise a group of elementary students, who lost their minds with glee upon seeing her. Two curly-haired girls immediately squealed and went sprinting towards her for hugs.

The scene, while initially heart-warming, left me with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. It was not until that moment that I realized Michelle Obama must spend thousands of dollars styling her hair to make it straight. She is a role model for young people across the U.S.—she is smart, runs a famous program to fight childhood obesity, graduated from Harvard Law School, and has stellar arms.

But in that moment, she made me momentarily question whether I should start straightening my hair again if I decide to get a job in Washington, D.C. That is the sort of power a woman in her position holds.

I can understand why Beyoncé straightens her hair—part of her career depends on her sex appeal, and maybe her bank accounts would suffer if she wore her hair naturally. But Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States? She has the power to transform our stereotypical image of straight-haired success. She has the opportunity to give women across the U.S. a sense of pride in the beautiful, wild manes we were born with. She could stand up to the cruel bloggers who attack Blue Ivy and pave the way for a new generation of curly haired athletes that can be judged on their athletic ability and not the texture of their hair. But she does not.

That’s why she will never be my role model.

I am not ignorant—I recognize all of this strangely-placed hair aggression is not just about fashion. It is proof of the subconscious racism that still prevails in the U.S. The peers who are intimidated by my hair are the same ones who let racist comments slip out, only to give me a sidelong glance and add “no offense to your people.” (The real kicker is that I’m a mix of Italian, English, Irish, and German—with 0.5% West African according to a genealogy test. But when people see my hair, or my mom’s hair, they jump to conclusions.) This passive form of racism is all the more reason to wear hair naturally—curly hair should be worn proudly to grand galas, prestigious interviews, and award ceremonies.

I am not trying to shame anyone with straight hair or those who straighten their hair. What I am trying to say is that it would be nice for a little girl to have a role model with a media presence who was proud of having Curly-with-a-capital-C hair. It would be empowering as an insecure middle school student to be able to watch a music video with a curly-haired artist and see how glamorous she looks. It would be great for a high school student getting ready for her first job interview to look at the First Lady and see how professional curly hair can be.

Hell, it would mean a lot to the young woman who just finished writing this article.

Julianna is a marine science enthusiast with a soft spot for plantain chips. She likes to go for long runs at a snail’s pace and is an aspiring banjo player. When in doubt she can be found holed up in the nearest cafe or Thai restaurant. She runs on espresso, whether it comes in a mug, bottle, or IV.

Photo Credit: The White House