It’s the hair that tells you everything you need to know.
Last week, Crown Publishing released the cover image of Michelle Obama’s forthcoming memoir, Becoming.
The cover image fits squarely within the genre of first lady memoirs released since Betty Ford’s The Times of My Life in 1978. In a closely cropped portrait, the smiling first lady looks directly into the camera, inviting you to take a peek into her life and her journey to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
There’s a predictable homogeneity to the styling of the portraits of Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. All of them feature the immovable hairshell that had come to typify political wife coifs: a wash-and-set preserved with an Aquanet halo of formality, fortified against the threat of a stiff breeze.
And then there’s Michelle.
The cover picture on Becoming places Obama within the tradition of American first ladies while also projecting her individuality. Her hair is styled in soft, beachy waves that are swept away from her face. It looks unpretentious, inviting and approachable, but it is still done. No one wakes up like that.
And, unlike her predecessors, Obama’s hair looks as though it would be right at home if you sat her in front of a wind machine. That is to say, it would actually move. Obama confidently bares a shoulder in a jersey top, the sort of thing one might don for a stroll along the boardwalk or while on vacation in a small town in Spain. All of it offers subtle visual nods to the casual, modern accessibility Obama brought to “The People’s House” during her tenure in the East Wing. The flowing nature of her hair and top are suggestive of the kineticism that came to define Obama: her love of dance and fitness, her willingness to infuse workout gear into official White House photographic dispatches.
The covers of these first lady memoirs serve as artifacts. They’re products of their time that tell us something about what we expect of America’s First Hostess. They capture ideas about famous femininity that exist outside of the Hollywood red carpet but that are still removed from everyday American life.
There were those who found Obama’s mere existence in the role of first lady offensive. She was not occupying the White House as a maid or a cook, a gardener or a florist, all honorable positions to be sure but ones defined by their roles in service to the presidency, an office that, before her husband’s arrival, had been 100 percent white. While Obama’s race was always integral to understanding the backlash against her, said backlash wasn’t always couched in explicitly racist terms. Instead, for instance, there were public debates about whether Obama violated some unwritten rule of decorum by baring her arms so much. Obama always operated within the parameters of protocol set for the first lady, she just did so as a round-the-way girl who grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago.
Aware that the presence of additional melanin and enslaved ancestors would set her apart, Obama tried to define the role of first lady instead of letting it define her. She broadened the swath of people who allowed themselves to feel a sense of pride and kinship in the White House and its occupants. They, too, sang America.
There’s no more better illustration of this approach to embracing one’s role as a symbol than Obama’s official portrait. Oh, sure, it follows the rules of official portraiture in that it is a likeness, created with paint and a canvas, of the first lady. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. But Amy Sherald’s portrait looks more like a two-dimensional illustration than those of her predecessors. It is a work of geometry and simplicity, devoid of the florid brushstrokes that have come to typify such portraits. Instead of being depicted somewhere in the White House, Obama is seated against a pale blue background. The entire portrait has a desaturated quality. In contrast to Obama’s trademark openness, her likeness is unsmiling, distant. It suggests there’s still some mystery to Obama. There are elements of Obama that few have seen, and she prefers to keep them to herself.
You have to go back to Eleanor Roosevelt, depicted with pencil and book in hand, to find another radical departure from the form. Roosevelt is depicted atop versions of her various selves, laughing or deep in thought. Her hands show up knitting, removing her glasses and removing her wedding ring. Roosevelt’s portrait is one of a woman who contained multitudes and wanted everyone to know it.
Obama’s portrait, like Roosevelt’s, suggests a woman who understands the significance of semiotics. So does her book cover.
The portrait is one thing, but then there’s the title. “Becoming,” of course, carries multiple meanings. It can refer to Obama’s process of growing into herself and getting comfortable with the spotlight of being America’s first black first lady. Obama has alluded to that process in her Instagram feed as the book’s Nov. 13 release date draws nearer. The posts, accompanied by detailed captions explaining their relevance, suggest an evolution.
But “becoming” also offers a graceful pushback against those who continually insulted her looks because they found the presence of her brown skin in the White House to be an affront. As an adjective, rather than a verb, becoming is an assertion of beauty, like fetching or comely. To be becoming is to have found a look that suits you, and it’s clear from her book cover that Michelle Obama has found one that suits her.