There's been a big fuss this week because Michelle Obama wore shorts. She's worn shorts before to walk the dog, do stuff around the White House. But the photos of her wearing them in that iconic descending-from-Air-Force-One-onto-the-tarmac setting proved too much for the media. Obamas? Check. Summer news doldrums? Check. Controversy? Close enough. It was a story.
And people reacted. The Today Show's poll on whether she should have shown that much thigh got one of the show's biggest responses ever, with 83% pro-shorts. Local papers found "experts" to discuss the implications of the shorts for the Obama White House, international papers analyzed what it said about American culture, the blogosphere took up every angle from what this said about the objectification of women to the taxonomy of the shorts: Hot pants? Cutoffs? Booty Shorts?
Then, just as vehemently, there was a big fuss over the big fuss. Many people were given to observe that there were more important things to talk about. Several commentators pointed out that, in fact, the conflict was fake; nobody had come out, on the record, as being against the shorts.
But the truth is there was a conflict. It is within each of us. While nobody would make Mrs. O wear couture in Arizona in August, the truth is, she just didn't look particularly good in shorts. Her arms are much admired. Her legs are just, you know, legs. Nobody immediately stepped forward, as J. Crew did with her cardigans, to announce "Hey, we made those! You can buy them too at unflatteringshorts.com."
Mrs. Obama was elevated to fashion-icon status way before last November. She has gone along with it, appearing on the cover of magazines and dressing up for big occasions. But it's not in her personal or political interest to hew too closely to that image. It's too limiting. It's exhausting. And, most of all, it separates her from the bulk of American womanhood, who do not have the wherewithal or energy to put it together perfectly every day. It's contraindicated with the just-folks charm that is the core of the Obamas appeal.
If we needed any more proof that looking good has its limits, it comes later this month Aug. 28, to be exact from an unlikely source: Vogue. In a new documentary, The September Issue, about the creation of the magazine's bumper September issue, the biggest revelation is that the women who have the most important jobs there, apart from editor Anna Wintour, do not look all that glamorous. They don't wear much makeup. Their outfits are unremarkable. They work really hard and get pretty scruffy doing it; the magazine's chief creative genius, 68-year-old Grace Coddington, spends most of the movie whipping up images that drip with luxury and beauty while her own hair looks like it was groomed with a rake.
For women, Michelle's shorts were long on significance. They give accomplished, glamorous people license to do what the power brokers at Vogue do, and that is to wear whatever the hell they like sometimes. So, ladies, get out your least flattering outfits your terry shorts, your oversize T-shirt, those extra comfortable arch-supporting shoes and wear them with pride. All the fashionable women are doing it.