Archived: President Obama, Misty Copeland Discuss Body Image and Race

By Sheryl Estrada

Ballerina Misty Copeland and President Barack Obama

In an interview released on Monday,President Barack Obama and ballerina Misty Copeland expressed the importance of women having a healthy body image.

As two African Americans who have reached thepinnacleoftheir respective careers, they sat down with Time magazine to discuss race, body image and achievement despite obstacles. As the father of two daughters, Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14, President Obama said he understands the pressures young women face in terms of appearance.

“When I was a kid I didn’t realize as much, or maybe it was even a part of which is the enormous pressure that young women are placed under in terms of looking a certain way. And being cute in a certain way. And are you wearing the right clothes And is your hair done the right way. And that pressure I think is (sic) historically always been harder on African American women than just about any other women.”

The President and First Lady at the White House state dinner in honor of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 10. Photo via Instagram.

President Obama said it hasbecome a societal norm for women to doubt themselves in regards to appearance.

“It’s part and parcel of a broader way in which we socialize and press women to constantly doubt themselves or define themselves in terms of a certain appearance,” he said. “And so Michelle and I are always guarding against that. And the fact that they’ve got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful.”

During her years inthe White House, Michelle Obama has been criticized for her appearance. In 2011, Wisconsin Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner made an insult about her posterior.

“She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself,” he said, making reference to the First Lady’s “Just Move,” a healthy eating and exercise initiative.

He later offered a standard apology.

That same year conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh also criticized Mrs. Obama, explaining why he thinks she doesn’t have an “ideal” body.

“The problem is, and dare I say this, it doesn’t look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice … I’m trying to say that our First Lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or of a woman Alex Rodriguez might date every six months or what have you.”

Over the years, his insults withracist and sexist undertones includerepeatedly callingherMichelle “My Butt” Obama.

Also in 2011, former speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal forwarded an email to friends that referred to her as “Mrs. Yo’ Mama.” The email showcased a photo of Mrs. Obama alongside with an image of the cartoon character the Grinch, with the subject line: “Twins separated at birth”

Related Story: Michelle Obama: My Critics Don’t Define Me

Last May, Mrs.Obama spoke candidly about her experience as the first Black First Lady of the United States at Tuskegee University’s commencement ceremony.

“Potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others,” Mrs. Obama said.

Her questions reflected stereotypes Black women often face, such as,”Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating” she said.

Mrs. Obama said sheeventually realized “the chatter, the name calling, the doubting” was “just noise.”

Copeland, who is a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports andNutrition, knows a lot about facing criticism for her physique. She doesn’t have the typical body type seen in the classical ballet world. Despite obstacles, last year she made history as the first Black woman promoted to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre (ABT). She was also the first Black female soloist in more than two decades at ABT, which she joined in 2000.

“Without a doubt, mentoring and sponsorship have played a very big part in Misty’s career,” Copeland’s manager Gilda Squire told DiversityInc in an interview in July.

Related Story: Misty Copeland: A Ballerina Offers Lessons in Mentoring, Sponsorship

In Copeland’s discussion with President Obamashe said herreach outside of the ballet world has also empowered her.

“I think that having a platform and having a voice to be seen by people beyond the classical ballet world has really been my power,” she said. “It’s allowed me to say, it’s okay to have a healthy athletic body. We are fully capable of doing everything that the person who doesn’t have an extremely athletic body, that is more thin, [can do].”

Related Story: Serena Williams, New York Times and Body Image

Copeland continued,”And I think that being in this position and showing that I can execute and do all of these things that it’s possible to have any skin complexion, to have a healthy body image for the ballerina body.”

President Obama said he thinks Copeland is a good role model for young women. Healso noted that entertainers and artists such as Copelandare expanding”what both white, Latino, Black children are seeing as representative of beauty,” which he saidis “much broader than it was when I was a kid.”

View Time magazine’s interview.

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