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Michelle Obama makes black women feel more comfortable being black women

JessicChastaViolDavis OctaviSpencer

Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer

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Updated: April 5, 2012 8:14AM

It is a good time to be a black woman in America.

Whether or not this assessment stems from the surprising popularity of the nation’s first black first lady, Michelle Obama, isn’t clear.

But according to a recent nationwide survey by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 73 percent of black women and 71 percent of white women polled responded that they think it is a good time to be a black woman in America.

In a series published last month, the Washington Post and Kaiser Foundation sought to peel back the many dubious labels often ascribed to black women.

We’ve all heard them: “angry,” “strong,” “nagging” and “loose.”

Interviewers talked to about 800 black women about their worries, hopes and fears to determine how black women see themselves in the Age of Obama.

The study itself represents change. After all, it isn’t very often researchers attempt to define black women from a perspective other than that of single mother or poor black women.

But the advent of Michelle Obama seems to have changed that.

Although you can’t really say Obama gave white Americans its first close-up of the accomplished black woman outside of Hollywood (that distinction goes to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).

But Obama showcased a multi-faceted black woman too often ignored. The Harvard-educated wife and mother is both glamorous and practical.

Her glamorous side has earned her a spot on the world’s best-dressed list, and among the nation’s elite trendsetters.

Her ability to keep it real, even under the brightest spotlight, has drawn criticism from some whites.

For instance, a photograph of the first lady in Bermuda shorts taken when she was returning to the White House from a family vacation was seized upon by her critics.

But black women likely saw the attire for what it was: practical.

Not surprisingly, in follow-up interviews by the Washington Post for its series, black women acknowledged having a special bond with Obama because of her gender and race.

The survey found that four in 10 black women said their overall impression of black women has improved because of Obama, while fewer than one in seven white women gave that response.

Obama seems to have done what Oprah Winfrey and others successful black celebrities could not: She has elevated black women in their own eyes.

The other night when I was looking at the Oscars, I caught the red carpet interview of Viola Davis and it hit me. Although I’ve been a huge fan of Davis’ and was sorely disappointed that she didn’t win an Oscar for best actress, I’ve hated her parade of wigs.

Davis apparently had an epiphany.

On the most important evening of her career, when she could have been called on to give an acceptance speech before millions, she chose an emerald green Vera Wang gown and natural hair. She told InStyle magazine that her husband wanted her to take the wig off after he saw her in a recent photo spread wearing her natural hair.

This, too me, is a subtle example of how Obama, who can make digging up vegetables in a garden without makeup look classy, has helped black women feel more comfortable being black women.

It is probably unfair to expect Obama to carry the burden of black womanhood, but you have to admit she has done a marvelous job deflecting the stereotypes that cause many black women to grit their teeth.

Additionally, the Washington Post Survey found that 67 percent of black women describe themselves as having high self-esteem, compared with 43 percent of white women.

Despite being bombarded with skinny images, such as Angelina Jolie’s emaciated arms, the poll found that black women, though heavier, are happier with their bodies than white women.

But black women are also much more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. That makes the first lady’s campaign against childhood obesity especially important to the black community.

Michelle Obama might not be able to change the image of black women, but she certainly has made them more visible.

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