I can’t think about Michelle Obama without also thinking about my mom.

I remember wobbling around the living room in her high heels. Taking my hair down from its scrunchies and barrettes to swing it around my head, imagining that it floated down past my shoulders in luxurious waves. I stuffed toilet paper down my shirt, cinched a belt around my waist, practiced a posh wave with one of my mother’s purses slung over my shoulder. I loved watching her get ready: the sweet mist of Red Door, her signature scent; her steady hand applying eyeliner, lipliner, mascara, with instruments that seemed lethal; the satisfied, confident smack of her painted lips. She exuded radiance, poise, self-assurance. I would ache with envy, watching her float on the heels that made me stumble, but taking quiet comfort in the fact that my feet were simply still too small. They would grow, eventually. I would grow into the grace my mother wielded like a weapon, rendering her impervious to the nutty chaos of being a little kid who stuffed tissues down her shirt. I would grow up to be a woman. A woman like my mom.

The beautiful thing about aging, I’ve found, is that these childish projections never quite go away; they morph. And they multiply. I’ve watched my mother face unbelievable hardship and retain the grace that took my breath away as a child. And I’ve discovered more role models — more solid, shining examples of Blackness and womanhood and confidence that make me feel like the little girl who has yet to learn how to hold a mascara brush. I’m watching, and learning, and growing alongside them. Michelle Obama is one of these role models.

The photo Essence released yesterday of Barack and Michelle Obama feels like the most fitting farewell image we could receive. While I have still not fully come to terms with the reality that, come January, they will no longer be our First Family, my sadness is much more of the “smile because it happened” rather than the “cry because it’s over” sort. They’re facing each other, hands clasped, staring deep into each other's eyes. Who can imagine what they’re feeling in that moment? As they near the finish line of this eight-year marathon? Relief? Sorrow? Regret? Satisfaction? We don’t know, and we never truly will. But we watch them, their radiance refracting tiny shards of light that act as mirrors, that reflect our own envy, our pride, our drive. Saying goodbye to the Obamas feels a bit like saying goodbye to the particular way we saw ourselves in them. Humble beginnings and all. Simple love story and all. Two young people with dreams and goals, who made it happen, who made a family, who made their haters and detractors so mad, who just made it. We watched, and we grew alongside them, and they’re leaving stronger in their love than ever. And we get to see that.

Michelle, tho.

Scrutinized from the very beginning, like all First Ladies are, yes — but it was different. We knew it was different, we who called her Auntie Michelle, who shared memes about her smelling like Pink lotion and cocoa butter, never out of malice, but out of a fierce sense of belonging — the recognition we were starved for. It seemed impossible that we waited so long to see a Black woman in the White House, and impossible that it was actually happening. I felt such triumph, and yet such despair, already anticipating the ways that the media would pick her apart, try to break her down, impose a medley of tropes and stereotypes on her that I feared might drown her out completely. Wrong. Whatever they tried to do, they failed. Michelle proved herself a woman more than capable of the roles she took on; she made it clear where she’d come from and how hard she worked, and she stood in her truth as a wife and mother and First Lady — firmly, to the point of unshakeable.

Yes, her looks are important, in the way that we make them important: toned arms, clear skin, curvaceous figure. We ascribe significance to these things so we can both humanize and deify our idols: Barack is so clever and charming and his hair is graying, Michelle is so intelligent and cool and she doesn’t age; it brings them to our level at the same time that it amplifies our reverence. We revere her because she is beautiful, because she is Black, because those signifiers both matter and they don’t, because her very existence flies in the face of every lie we’ve ever been told about ourselves. She’s just a woman: a Black woman, like my mom. A Black woman, like me.
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