At the start of the first-ever United State of Women summit on Tuesday in Washington, DC, senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett said in her opening remarks, “There has never been a better time to be a woman than right now.” And while she’s right in some respects, the topics discussed throughout the day—from rampant sexual assault on college campuses to unequal pay to domestic violence—demonstrated that our culture still has a long way to go.
One woman who doesn’t have far to go, though, is First Lady Michelle Obama. Her discussion with friend and megastar Oprah Winfrey was the main event of the summit's first day—if you don't count speeches by President Obama and Vice President Biden (ovaries before brovaries, guys), as well as ones from Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, Warren Buffett, Amy Poehler, Kerry Washington, and Shonda Rhimes. But Michelle and Oprah’s chat was the standout, and as I sat front and center watching these incredible women, their conversation reminded me that Michelle has broken just as many barriers as her president husband.
More than anything, woven into all of the First Lady's remarks was a common thread of how well she knows herself—a trait that is perhaps her most admirable quality. In the face of public figures (like a certain presidential frontrunner) trying to keep powerful women down, she—pardon the expression—DGAF what they say. She thinks women, and especially women of color, are often put in a box. And she preaches a vital message of self-love in order to bust out of that box.
If the current state of the world has you searching for inspiration, these five quotes about self-acceptance from Michelle and Oprah's conversation might just do the trick.
1. “Our first job in life as women is to get to know ourselves and I think a lot of times we don’t do that. We spend a lot of time pleasing, satisfying, looking out into the world to define who we are. Listening to the messages, the images, the limited definitions that people have of who we are.”
It’s no surprise that Michelle is a role model. Not only is she the first First Lady of color, but she has shown that just because everyone’s eyes are on you doesn’t mean you need to change who you are. She told Oprah that having supportive and loving parents was the foundation of her confidence—but being brilliant and beautiful couldn’t have hurt.
She’s the mother to two teenage daughters, Malia, 17, and Sasha, 15, and serves as a mentor to young women in the DC area who drop by the White House and greet her with "Hayyy Michelle." It’s a role she says she takes very seriously, and for good reason: You never know who’s going to be the next First Lady. Or the next President.
2. “I like me. I’ve liked me for a very long time. For a long time I’ve had a very good relationship with myself. You’ve gotta work to get to that place. If you’re going out in the world and you don’t know who you are and you don’t know what you want you don’t know how much you’re worth, then you have to be brave and you have to count on the kindness and goodness of others to bestow that goodness on you when you should be working to get it on your own because you deserve it.”
Before heading to White House in 2009, Michelle worked as an attorney and then as an administrator at the University of Chicago Hospital. As a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, she clearly had the tools for greatness. You could even argue that President Obama married up. But as she told Oprah, it was her inner confidence and strength that helped her get to where she wanted—not luck or bravery.
3. “I always tell young girls to surround yourself with goodness. I learned early on how to get the haters out of my life.”
No matter how smart and accomplished you are, there will always be haters. Michelle probably understands this better than most. But she said the key was to rid yourself of “low lives” who bring you down, and keep the company of people who know you’re a BAMF. Oprah added that poet and friend Maya Angelou used to tell her, “Baby, you need to know that you alone are enough.” (Maybe the real lesson here is to surround yourself with brilliant poets.)
4. “When it comes to social media, sometimes you just have to turn off the world. You have to give yourself the space to be quiet. You have to set those phones done. You can’t be reading that stuff. That’s like letting somebody walk up to you and slap you.”
As a woman on the internet, I can say that one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is “don’t read the comments.” It goes hand in hand with "don't feed the trolls." It seems that the First Lady learned this, too. While we’re all glued to our phones day in and day out, Michelle advises women to step away from our devices from time to time, escape that negative energy and maybe, pardon the expression, go outside.
5. “People won’t remember what other people said about you but they’ll remember what you do…the best revenge is success and good work.”
Between her work with the Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity combined with her work to empower young women all over the world, history won’t soon forget Michelle Obama. But she herself admitted on Tuesday that her work is far from done. I'm pulling for a role on Shona Rhimes' next smash hit. A girl can dream. And Michelle's all about pursuing your dreams.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.