Barack Obama’s long-awaited new presidential and personal memoir A Promised Land is full of interesting details about the former POTUS’ inner life — none more interesting to us, however, than those about wife Michelle Obama and their marriage. The great conflict, detailed some in Michelle’s own memoir Becoming, is that Michelle never saw herself as a politician’s wife, and it wasn’t what she envisioned for their family. But with patience, understanding, and compromise, they built a new vision of the future — and only now are we hearing some of the details of what bothered Michelle in her day-to-day. For example: Obama details both in his memoir and a new Vanity Fair interview that Michelle’s “main goal” as first lady was never to be photographed in a bathing suit by the paparazzi. He laughs about it, and readers will too. It’s funny, but she was also serious, and she didn’t get in the water if there was a chance of a camera being nearby for eight years. And while this may have been one of her “small” sacrifices, Michelle’s act of defiance here speaks volumes here about the pressure of the situation she was thrust into as our first Black First Lady.
Barack writes of Michelle’s fear like this in his memoir, describing a trip to Panama City Beach shortly after the BP oil spill in 2010.
“In August I took the family to Panama City Beach, Florida, for a two-day ‘holiday,’ to boost the region’s tourism industry. A picture from that trip, taken by Pete Souza and later released by the White House, shows me and Sasha splashing in the water,” he writes. “Michelle is missing because, as she had explained to me shortly after I was elected, ‘one of my main goals as First Lady is to never be photographed in a bathing suit.'”
Asked by Vanity Fair‘s Jesmyn Ward to confirm this comment by Michelle, Barack doubled down: “She was serious,” he affirmed. “And she succeeded.”
Barack Obama's book #APromisedLand reveals how his father's absence made him a better dad. “The fact that my own father was largely absent from my childhood helped shape my ideas about the kind of father I intended to be." https://t.co/vl3gpNB8Qf
— SheKnows (@SheKnows) November 18, 2020
It’s well within Michelle’s rights to not want to be photographed in a bathing suit, and in fact should be more within her rights (meaning paparazzi should be banned more places than they are). That being said, we’ve seen Hillary Clinton, Jackie O., and other first ladies in bathing suits, and Michelle was openly proud of her physical fitness. So why in particular did she have this concern?
Let’s take another recent example we all know and love of a woman entering a historically white institution and feeling the full force of the paparazzi slam down on her: Meghan Markle. The first mixed-race member of the British royal family in centuries, Meghan — not coincidentally — faced a flurry of criticism from paparazzi the intensity of which had not been seen since the young Princess Diana, even facing a specific incident of paparazzi hiding out to obtain bikini photos that drove Prince Harry into a rage.
Meghan’s criticism, unlike Diana’s (or say, Hillary Clinton’s), bore a distinctly racial tinge. She was cast as demanding and arrogant, lambasted for her failure to adhere to royal protocol and “fit in,” and even had her infant mixed-race son compared to a monkey by the UK press.
“A lot of people think it’s likely that they’ll follow the trend of hiding her pregnancy until after the baby is born — just for their own peace of mind,” a source says about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's potential secret pregnancy. https://t.co/0hv0E0hiHt
— SheKnows (@SheKnows) November 19, 2020
Stepping up as first lady in 2008, seven years before Meghan would marry into the royal family, is it any surprise that Michelle felt similar fear about what scrutiny she would face? In her first few years in office, even the decidedly un-risqué choice to expose her shoulders would often earn her headlines, the national frenzy over Michelle’s well-toned arms always hovering somewhere between admiring and objectifying. A West Virginia county worker’s decision to characterize Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels” in 2017, however, was crystal clear.
Michelle Obama seems to always have known she would be held to a higher standard than her predecessors. And sorry as we are that she had to hide from paparazzi for eight years, we’re equally glad Michelle was able to keep this one thing private.
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Before you go, click here to see celebrities who fight hard to keep their partners and kids away from paparazzi.