Another week passes, another white man criticizes First Lady Michelle Obama’s posterior. This time it’s Bob Grisham, a high school football coach in Florence, Alabama. He has been suspended for 10 days after referring to the FLOTUS as “fat butt Michelle Obama.” Grisham also referred to the “Let’s Move” advocate as overweight.
His comments are the latest in a secession of absurd remarks about Mrs. Obama’s physique. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh often refers to the First Lady as Michelle “My Butt” Obama, and Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), was forced to issue an apology after he commented on her “large posterior.” These inappropriate comments aren’t isolated incidents; rather, they are a reflection of a systemic cultural issue that degrades black women’s bodies.
Ayana Bird, the co-editor of Naked: Black Women Bare all about their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts sums up the issue well: “We have a history in this country of white people not showing adequate respect for and devaluing the bodies of black women, and this most definitely falls in line with that,” she told The Washington Post.
Bird is referring to history that dates back to the colonization of the 1800s. Sarah “Saartje” Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, was exploited by British colonizers. She was put on display in a Great Britain freak show because of her large buttocks and elongated labia, which are common features of black women’s bodies. White men paid thousands of dollars to watch Baartman traipse through a small, inhumane cage, and when she died in 1815, she was still a major attraction. Her remains were kept in a French museum until 2002, when former South African president Nelson Mandela persuaded the government to return her to Africa for proper burial.
When the British colonized the New Land, that would come to be known as the United States of America, the exploitation and degradation continued through the enslavement of African women. Black bodies were considered property of the slave owner, and black women were routinely raped and impregnated by their oppressors. To justify this sexual domination, slave owners depicted black women as jezebels, a historically-controlling image of a hyper-sexualized creature incapable of inhibiting her carnal desires.
Though the physical remnants of slavery have been eradicated, critical race theory asserts that discrimination is continually replicated. The constant scrutinizing of First Lady Michelle Obama’s chiseled frame is evidence of this.
All first ladies are vetted in the public’s spotlight, as the Washington Post points out. Former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton has been criticized for her chubby ankles while Nancy Reagan’s head was immortalized in Mission of Burma’s “I’m haunted by the freakish size of Nancy Reagan’s head/No way that thing came with that body” lyric.
However, because Michelle Obama is of African descent, the critiques stem from the reproduction of cruel discourse about black women’s bodies. Grisham, Limbaugh, Sensenbrenner, and the other white men who are sure to travel down this path should be cautious when assessing all women’s figures, particularly minority women, who are marginalized by their race and gender.
So here’s a piece of advice for the next man who wants to voice his opinion on First Lady Michelle’s hips and posterior: Don’t.