Posted on May 4, 2009

First Hair

Gioia Diliberto, Huffington Post, May 2, 2009

In her first hundred days as First Lady, Michelle Obama has worn her hair mostly in a sleek page-boy, but also occasionally gently waved and upswept. Johnny Wright, the 31-year-old stylist from Frederic Fekkai’s West Hollywood salon, who was anointed Michelle’s exclusive hairdresser three months ago, has experimented a bit with the White House supermodel, giving her bangs for an appearance in Prague during the G20 Summit and a half up-do for her meeting with Queen Elizabeth.

What Wright hasn’t and will never give Michelle, however, are twists, braids, ringlets, dreadlocks, or any other African-American style. Michelle hasn’t worn her hair natural since she was a school girl. Only once on a vacation to Jamaica during her college years, did she wear braids, according to friends.

In Chicago, where until last January Michelle had lived her entire life with the exception of college and law school, most professional black women straighten their hair. Ethnic hair can be misinterpreted as defiant or militant, “and you don’t want to do anything that’s going to put you in a position where people can criticize you,” says Laura Washington, an African-American journalist. {snip}

A noted exception is Carole Brown, the Harvard educated financial expert, who succeeded Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett as board chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority. Her braids, which once cascaded around her shoulders but are now cut short, have caused not a stir in the press or the blogosphere. The trains and buses still run (sort of) on time.

But Carole Brown is not the First Lady. “It would be asking a lot of the American public,” to accept Michelle in ethnic hair, says Michael “Rahni” Flowers, who did Michelle’s hair for 28 years, from the time she graduated from high school through the inauguration. “People assume it means something, when you have natural hair. It means militancy. It means defiance.”

Most professional black men wear their hair like President Obama’s in an extremely short, non-descript style that requires little care.


If Michelle wore her hair ethnic, adds an African-American friend from her Princeton days, “she’d get attacked. She’d get appreciation, too, mainly from black women, but she’d get attacked for not looking the part. She also would be criticized generationally, regardless of race, so older black people would complain too, because it’s too ethnic and not professional. A lot of black people have internalized this white standard of beauty, so they would lay into her.”

Even with her straightened, non-ethnic hair, Michelle is changing how whites look at black women. What is perhaps most exciting about the new First Lady is not that she’s the black Jackie Kennedy, but that she’s freeing us from Jackie’s polished perfection–an ideal based on white, European notions of beauty and elegance.


The pale mainstream, of course.

While white people have fallen in love with Michelle for many of the right reasons–her intelligence, compassion, strength, humor and uncynical sense of moral duty–their adulation also allows them to congratulate themselves on their enlightened ideas about race: Here is a dark-skinned African-American woman with classic black features, and we relate to her totally! She’s black, and she’s one of us.