Friday, March 13, 2009

Commentary: First Lady as Role Model

By Stephanie E. Myers
First lady Michelle Obama’s fashion statement with her sleeveless dresses has done as much to promote fitness and health within the first few months of the Obama administration as many government agencies have achieved over the past 20 years. In recent days, her toned, bare arms have become a topic of conversations around kitchen tables, on Web blogs and in gossip columns.

As a somewhat traditional wife and grandmother, I admit that my initial reaction to the first lady’s penchant for sleeveless attire in the winter was surprise — “Isn’t she freezing?” I thought or, “Is this attire appropriate for uptight Washington, D.C.?” My reactions were echoed by others who said, “Who is advising her to go bare-armed to the U.S.Congress?” And Cindi Leive, editor of Glamour magazine, reportedly exclaimed via e-mail, “The First Lady has bare arms in Congress, in February, at night!”

But before reaching a conclusion, I turned to members of a virtual network I belong to called “Black Women for Obama for Change.” .” I was a little surprised and then pleased to learn how supportive our younger members are regarding the first lady’s sleeveless fashion statement and how inspired they are with her fitness regime. Then, I realized my friends, the bloggers and the media were failing to appreciate the positive impact Michelle Obama is having on youth, women and men with her emphasis on personal fitness.

By displaying her toned, muscular arms, Michelle Obama is sparking a national dialog about physical fitness and what it takes to achieve. She is letting the world know that she and her husband—the president of the United States—rise at 5 a.m. to go to the White House gym—a message to all of us to get out of bed and exercise. And, she is sending a health message to a nation suffering from the highest levels of adult and childhood obesity in history.

As a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I can attest to the millions of dollars that are spent to educate the public about the risks of obesity. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 66 percent of adults in the United States are considered overweight or obese. Among non-Hispanic Black women, 79.6 percent are obese, while 67 percent of non-Hispanic Black Men are seriously overweight. This obesity epidemic puts people at increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and some forms of cancer.

If Michelle Obama’s fit arms are a way to urge our nation’s citizens to exercise and take responsibility for their own health, then I applaud her role-modeling. Let’s all hope she sparks a national movement to encourage everyone to lift those weights, watch fatty foods and maintain a healthy body weight. So, in spite of my old-fashioned fashion codes, I support the first lady’s “right to bare arms.”

Published in the The Washington Afro-American Newspaper Opinion March 7, 2009 – March 13, 2009 Issue.

Stephanie E. Myers is producer of and national co-chair, Black Women for Obama for Change. Her e-mail is

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