In a spectacular conversation moderated by Essence, President Obama and American Ballet Theatre's principal dancer Misty Copeland sat down recently and discussed their experiences as black Americans who have made it to the top of their respective fields. They covered topics including affirmative action and Black Lives Matter—but they also discussed an issue that, while crucial, doesn’t get enough mainstream media attention: black women and body image.
A few minutes into the conversation, Obama noted the “enormous pressure that young women are placed under in terms of looking a certain way." He went on to highlight the unique challenges black women face, adding, "that pressure, I think, has historically always been harder on African American women than just about any other women"—something he has been conscious of as a father of daughters.
“But it’s part and parcel of a broader way in which we socialize and press women to constantly doubt themselves or define themselves in terms of a certain appearance," the president said. "And so Michelle and I are always guarding against that. And the fact that they’ve got a tall, gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful.”
To have the leader of the “free world” celebrate the “curves” of his wife and reinforce body positivity has honestly left me a bit dumbfounded. Now that the PRESIDENT (the president!!!) is validating the spectrum that is beauty, perhaps other institutions that perpetuate narrow standards of beauty (major fashion labels, Hollywood, the advertising industry, you know who are you) can take note and catch the hell up.
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Earlier in the conversation, Copeland, the first female African American principal in American Ballet Theatre's history—and a woman who is excelling in a field that’s notorious for body conformity—shared her own experiences navigating beauty and body image, discussing the microaggressions she's faced simply for dancing while black.
"A lot of what I’ve experienced has not always been to my face, or its been very subtle, but it's in a way that I know what's going on and I feel it deep inside of me," she said. "And being the only African American in almost every environment in terms of classical ballet, it weighs on you and it wears on you after a while."
She praised grassroots movements that celebrate black womanhood—beauty, brains and all.
“To have movements like Black Girl Magic, I think it couldn’t be more positive for a young black girl to see that it’s okay to be yourself, it’s okay to not have to transform and look like what you may see on the cover of a lot of magazines,” she said. “That you are beautiful, that it’s possible to succeed in any field that you want to, looking the way that you do. With your hair the way it is. I think all of that is so extremely important and something that I’m constantly celebrating.”
(For the uninitiated, "Black Girl Magic" is a phrase and hashtag that celebrates the grace, strength, and all-around badassery of black girls and women.)
While we still have a long way to go, Obama and Copeland’s words come at a cultural moment when black beauty is being recognized and celebrated like never before—last year, the September issues of Vogue, New York Magazine, Shape, and Self all featured black women on their covers. And last week’s issue of Ebony, titled “The Body Brigade,” starred four successful and iconic black women who are plus-sized. Hopefully Obama and Copeland's empowering Essence conversation will keep the discussion moving forward.