One of my greatest disappointments on Inauguration Day was how much time was wasted talking about Michelle Obama's fashion. While I understand that fashion is an art form, just like video, sculpture, music, and many of the other mediums discussed on this blog, in the larger social context it plays a different role. Having been poor for the majority of my life, I know how easy it is to lose, or never gain access to, power, based on what your clothes look like.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that he hoped that one day all people would be judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Because of my experience of being ridiculed and judged harshly based on what I'm wearing, I like to think that for MLK, fashion would not be a signifier for 'content of character.' For this reason, I was upset that on such a historically significant day, people cared about what clothes were being worn.
Last week Salon.com published an article by Erin Aubry Kaplan entitled "The Michelle Obama hair challenge." When I saw the heading I cringed, thinking that it was indicative of continued fascination with questions of fashion. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Hair has always been political, especially in relation to the African American community. (As an aside, I understand that fashion is also political, but there is a difference between clothes that we can take off, and parts of our body that we have for life).
The article explores the relationship that Michelle Obama's hairdo has to racial identity. Issues of presentation, and to what degree minority bodies assume the look of the majority, have long been topics of discussion in minority communities. I've spent my own life dealing with the topic of hair. As a transsexual, my relationship to hair has had to do with ideals of sex and gender, rather than race, but the underlying significance is similar. (However, like clothes, length of hair can be changed fairly easily in comparison to its physical structure.) Do you conform your body to 'pass,' by removing signifiers that scare the majority, or do you embrace your cultural identity (and who defines that identity)?
The Obama's are now their own cultural phenomenon. Many people in the country look up to them, not only for their political prowess, but as an image of what America is. Their decisions will have profound influence over the dialogues and choices that people will make for years to come. This is why the question of Michelle Obama's hair is a very important one. If you are not well apprised of the issues at hand, I strongly suggest delving into this article. At the bottom of the article's first page are links to more of Kaplan's writing. I strongly suggest taking some time to get to know her work.