Don’t Let Your Children See…Michelle Obama’s Shoulder?

Elizabeth Fitton

On 2nd March 2021, a young reader edition of Michelle Obama’s best-selling autobiography Becoming was released. Having felt inspired by Becoming as a young adult, I was delighted to hear that a young reader edition was going to be published. 

I remember thinking it was important Obama didn’t sugar-coat the harsher realities she experienced as a successful lawyer, then as FLOTUS, because of her race and gender. So, I was relieved to read Becoming’s content has not been altered for young readers. Instead, a new introduction has been included specially tailored to a young readership, alongside full-colour photos to captivate the attention of today’s younger generation. 

This all showed the sincere intentions of inspiring the future generation and I was excited about this. Until I saw the cover.

Michelle Obama is beautiful on both covers, let’s first establish that. Her hair, makeup, and earrings in the young reader edition are exactly the same as the original Becoming cover. But she is not wearing the same top. I was struck by the fact that Obama, and, or, her publishing team at Delacorte Press decided that Obama should wear a t-shirt for the young reader edition instead of the off-the-shoulder top she wears on the Becoming cover. 

There is no denying this was a conscious decision. Why keep everything else identical and just change the top? I don’t know whether this is to appease the adults buying the book for the target readership of 10 years-old and up. But for me, it sends a strange message: that an exposed shoulder is inappropriate for young readership, i.e that an exposed shoulder is sexual.

Michelle Obama was routinely criticised for her outfit choices throughout her time as FLOTUS. Marie Claire notes she once “wore shorts on a trip to the Grand Canyon with her family in 2009, and it caused a complete uproar. People thought it was ‘inappropriate’”. This is something Obama openly discusses in Becoming, so I am surprised and disappointed that the top was changed for young reader edition.

Obama and her marketing team are working to appease these sexist fashion critics, rather than directly tackling them. 

Upon seeing the cover, I was immediately reminded of the scathing attack Labour MP Tracy Brabin received for the off-the-shoulder top she wore in the House of Commons in 2020. Refusing to apologise, Brabin took to twitter to illuminate the extent of abuse she received:

Clearly, sexism is at play here. The names Brabin was called are distinctly linked to her identity as a woman. While I can respect the importance of appropriate attire for the workplace, I do not support using a shoulder as an excuse for a misogynistic onslaught.

The reasons behind changing Obama’s top for the young reader edition I assume will remain unaddressed by her publishing team. I am sceptical if suggesting to young girls we must censor our clothing to appease sexist attitudes surrounding female dress pairs with the inspiring, female empowerment at the heart of Obama’s Becoming.