When it comes to the Obama family, the fashion and beauty media have paid plenty of attention to the excellent sartorial choices of First Lady Michelle, and sometimes to those of her daughters Sasha and Malia. Something that hasn't been brought up as much is the Obama ladies' hair and the beauty standards that they may or may not feel they need to live up to as women in the public eye — and as the first-ever black first family. That is, until President Barack Obama brought up the subject during an extensive conversation with American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland and Time reporter Maya Rhodan.
Throughout the discussion, which took place late last month, Obama and Copeland connect on topics like rising up the ranks in their respective fields, staying grounded and how race factors into everything (both Copeland and Obama are biracial, in addition to obviously being trailblazers in their industries). In professional ballet, where the standard aesthetic is still white and (very, very) thin, Copeland had to deal with feeling like an outsider for her more athletic body type, darker skin and different hair. Obama says he's seen a similar struggle in his own family members, for whom he feels Copeland is a great role model. Read a portion of their conversation (transcribed in its entirety by Time) below, in which he says some interesting things about the preoccupation with having good hair — and the amount of time and money spent to get it — amongst black women.
OBAMA: I have to say as an outsider, I don’t know if you feel the same way. When I hear that like your body type is considered sort of more athletic or large, you're tiny. For those of you who are watching, you may not be able to see. I mean, you're petite.
OBAMA: So the notion that somehow that was even a question is pretty interesting.
COPELAND: Yeah, I mean I think it's how – I think it's a lot of the language and how we use it. And I think for a lot of people of color, that seems to be an easy way or a way out by saying you don't fit in. It may be it's your skin color. It may be the texture of your hair. Whatever it is.
OBAMA: We want a certain look.
COPELAND: Yeah. And I think that's an easy way of addressing that.
TIME: As a father of two daughters, do you see that at all? Do you see that pressure in your own life?
OBAMA: Yeah. I mean some of this is just gender issues, generally. I mean when you're a dad of two daughters you notice more. When I was a kid I didn't realize as much, or maybe it was even a part of which is the enormous pressure that young women are placed under in terms of looking a certain way. And being cute in a certain way. And are you wearing the right clothes? And is your hair done the right way. And that pressure I think is historically always been harder on African-American women than just about any other women. But it's part and parcel of a broader way in which we socialize and press women to constantly doubt themselves or define themselves in terms of a certain appearance. And so Michelle and I are always guarding against that. And the fact that they've got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful. I do think that culture's changing for the younger generation a little bit more. You see Beyonce or you see some of these pop stars and what both white, Latino, black children are seeing as representative of beauty is much broader than it was when I was a kid. You just didn't see that much representation. And that's healthy and that's encouraging. But it's still a challenge. I mean Malia'll talk about black girl's hair and will have much opinions of that. And she's pretty opinionated about the fact that it costs a lot, it takes a long time, that sometimes girls can be just as tough on each other about how they're supposed to look. And so it's, as a parent, that's a constant learning process that you're trying to hold the fort. And that's why somebody like Misty ends up being so important.
A lot of it is the power of that image, even if they're not dancers, even if they're not interested in pursuing a career in entertainment or the arts. For them to know that that's valued end up making a big difference.