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03.04.09

The History of Michelle's Arms

Michelle Obama's arms may be the talk of the town, but she actually owes the look to Jackie, Dolley and-as if her husband needed another Lincoln tie, Mary Todd. By Sandra McElwaine. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

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Simply everyone is talking about it (or them) everywhere I go. Whether it’s a high-powered dinner, lunch with a close friend, a book club or a cocktail party: you can’t escape the subject—Michelle Obama’s unrelenting sleeveless look, and namely, her gorgeous, toned arms. In the midst of a conversation about the thorny issues of the day someone will mention those limbs. But so far as I can tell, what all the very opinionated people have neglected to mention, is that Michelle is hardly the first first lady to bare her arms. In fact, one of the first ladies most notorious for doing so was—dare I even say it—Mary Todd Lincoln.

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Now I agree: Michelle is tight and taut and delightfully wields the power of glamour. But enough already! Mrs. Lincoln too was known for her round, well-proportioned arms and could, on occasion, stun her husband by the depth of her décolletage. Michelle has simply turned toned arms into a bold, new fashion statement. Anatomical discussions around the proverbial watercooler used to revolve around legs or boobs or butts or toes, or even a serious wardrobe malfunction à la Janet Jackson. Not anymore. Not since the high-gloss first lady started flaunting those glistening ab-fab Obama-arms, the body part du jour.

While other first ladies were not necessarily known for baring arms—with the exception of Jackie O., who often wore the same type of sleeveless, jewel-neck dresses as Michelle does—they all made their distinct fashion statements. Nancy Reagan was a passionate fashionista in her borrowed finery from Adolfo and Galanos. Her wardrobe was genteel and lady-like, although she definitely raised eyebrows when attending a high-powered dinner in white satin toreador pants. Rosalyn Carter was frugal and simple. Her inaugural gown was off the rack in Plains, Georgia—and it was the same one she wore to her husband’s inauguration as governor of Georgia. (People joke it was so dreary the Smithsonian, which displays all the first ladies’ inaugural gowns, did not want to accept it.)

Then there was Dolley Madison, who dazzled the capital with bold colors, turbans, even ostrich feathers; and Frances Folsom Cleveland, who became mistress of the White House when she was only 21, and infuriated the Women’s Christian Temperance Union when she wore gowns that bared her shoulders. (They petitioned her to stop because it they said it was “an evil influence on other young American girls.” She never responded, commented, or changed her sexy style.) As for Hillary Clinton, what’s to say except that she made pantsuits acceptable for both day and night. Bless her for that!

Frances Folsom Cleveland infuriated the Women’s Christian Temperance Union when she wore gowns that bared her shoulders. They petitioned her to stop because it was “an evil influence on other young American girls.”

But back to Michelle and her finely toned arms. There she is on the cover of Vogue in a sleeveless crimson Jason Wu sheath dress. Then the cover of People, same style, this time a frothy pink. At the Alfalfa dinner, she was bare-armed in a sumptuous crushed raspberry dress, and for her official portrait she chose stunning black which once again revealed the firmest triceps, biceps, and deltoids in town. Even on the coldest nights of the year—OK, she’s from Chicago and she has a limo—she feels compelled to don a sleeveless frock and flash those lanky, flab-free arms.

Maybe what has captured public attention and caused all the brouhaha is not just Michelle’s choice to bare arms, but her obvious devotion to physical fitness. Betty Ford had the body of a dancer, which she once was, lithe and graceful. But she rarely revealed her torso. Once I spent the better part of a week at the White House doing an “Upstairs Downstairs” story for Vogue, and remember Mrs. Ford showing me her large mirrored closet. It contained a raft of pretty chiffon gowns, but there was certainly nothing outré about them. Michelle pumps iron and works out with a personal trainer for 90 minutes, three times a week, sometimes as early as 5:30 am—with her husband. Betty and Nancy and Jackie certainly didn’t do that.

In all seriousness, and with all due respect to her, someone should tell Michelle to mix up her wardrobe and cover up from time to time. I’m beginning to think she has an Arnold Schwarzenegger complex. Mary Todd Lincoln was a major shopaholic, addicted to French fashion. In one extremely bizarre indulgence, she purchased 400 pairs of gloves over a period of four months. Gloves might be an answer for Michelle, too. She could show up on her next magazine cover buff, sculpted, and wearing those same elegant, long white kid ones. Above the elbow, of course. I’m not sure about the warmth factor, but think what she could do for the glove industry!

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for the Washington Star, the Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.