First Lady spurs new arms race


GIVE ME A BREAK:A LOT OF ATTENTION has been focused on Michelle Obama’s clothes, with Vogue magazine celebrating her sense of off-the-peg style, but what about those arms? Muscled, curvy, brown and – dare I say – sexy. Slick and subtly shining, they are at the very centre of her cover shot, representing what, exactly?

Every generation has its erogenous zone. In Victorian times, legs were regarded as so tempting that the curved legs of pianos and tables sported cotton cover-ups to quell the desires that bare legs of any kind ignited in men. The female body was corseted into an exaggerated hourglass shape requiring extreme lacing that, today, would be regarded as a niche fetish. Then, it was normal.

And when the flappers removed their corsets in the 1920s to wear loose dresses that exposed their legs from the knee down, this was seriously racy. In the 1950s, the corsetry continued with the bra and girdle, but by then the breasts had become the erotic zone. In the late 1960s, mini-skirts brought the legs back in to play and a boyish chest returned.

In the 1980s, Madonna introduced the flat stomach (not so flat then), so that by the end of the 1990s an exposed and pierced abdomen was the erogenista’s desire. Madonna took her exercise to extremes and introduced the external corset – a musculature achieved by intense training. The cycles are moving faster so that in the past decade, we’ve also been through pierced noses, plumped up lips, Jennifer Lopez bottoms, enhanced breasts, fake tans, tattoos and multiple ear-piercing.

And now we have arms. Bold, strong, sleek, buff arms. The arms say: “I work. I have both the discipline and the leisure to go to the gym daily. I’m too serious a woman to show off my legs or my breasts. My arms show that my focus is on achievement and self-control.” Michelle reportedly trains three times a week with a personal trainer.

Pleasing her man by appearing feminine and frail is not a look that Michelle Obama pursues, or would even consider. Yet, her arms aren’t too muscular; they’re within the boundaries of acceptable female strength. No steroids here, just the discipline for early morning work-outs. Her arms make her beautiful, rather than overly powerful, reassuring us that, as a woman, Michelle is stalwart and loyal to the leader of the Western world and not wanting to undermine or replace him.

In the 960-odd issues of Vogue since 1929 she is only the 18th black woman to be featured on the cover – that means that black women have featured on less than two per cent of covers.

I think of those Vogue magazines featuring anorexic white women lying on tables polished by black women who may not even have been able to read them. I think of black women cradling white women’s babies in their strong arms. I see them carrying heavy trays in restaurants. I see them cleaning white women’s houses so that the white women could spend their days pursuing the latest erogenous zone.

I see them escaping the south and heading to Ohio on the underground railroad with heavy cases in their arms. I see them carrying books, getting university degrees, becoming teachers, lawyers and administrators. I see each generation of black American mothers and grandmothers nurturing the next generation to rise a little higher than the one before.

Michelle Obama’s arms convey a feminine power that would have been unthinkable before. I don’t mean to say that having strong, sexy arms is a black woman’s thing. My Swedish grandmother had arms like that. She’d been a servant and a cook and had little education, but lived to see one of her children and many of her grandchildren go to university, even Harvard, thanks to her strong arms.

Arms that can work and hold and inspire are an erogenous zone that all women can aspire to, while remaining intelligent women, because arms are as androgynous as they are erogenous. Well-toned arms say: “I’m a woman, I’m equal but I’m still beautiful.”

Intelligent women know that legs shouldn’t be exposed if you want to be taken seriously because men never expose their legs (except on holiday); breasts speak of B-list bovinity and a lack of intelligence because men don’t have them; piercings lack purity (we’re heading into a pure and serious stage now), and tattoos – well, I’d like to see how good Angelina Jolie’s ones look when she’s past her prime.

But arms? You can’t go wrong with well-toned arms. We all want them now. It’s a new arms race. If you can’t afford the gym, start doing research on how to achieve the look by lifting tins of beans.

Please excuse this flight of fancy. I was going to write about how appalling it is that more than 500 children have lost their special needs teachers, and how angry I am at the banks and a Government that either failed to see what was happening or turned a blind eye to it, but you’re thinking all this yourself and don’t need me to make you feel worse.

So let’s get working on those arms. Like all fashion in hard times, it’s a distraction. Especially now that tinned beans are on the menu.