Thursday, February 26, 2009

Michelle Obama and our buff-arm fetish

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-schmich-obama-arms-090227,0,6109973.column

Talking about Michelle Obama's buff bare arms seems unseemly, doesn't it?

But any famous woman who bares her arms in front of the U. S. Congress, on television, in winter, may as well have texted an invitation to the nation to discuss her biceps.

The chatter began almost as soon as President Barack Obama's speech ended Tuesday.

"Michelle Obama displayed her own 'flinty Chicago toughness' on Tuesday night as she braved the cold conditions of February," said the Huffington Post, "and looked stunning in a sleeveless blouse during the President's address to Congress. The garment was particularly flattering to her well-toned arms."

An online New York Times writer called Mrs. Obama's bare arms her constant accessory, noting that " Nancy Reagan wore spangled ballgowns. Barbara Bush had fake pearls. Michelle Obama wears her bare arms."

Michelle Obama does indeed have nicely toned biceps and triceps. But the fascination with her arms – also on display on the cover of March Vogue -- goes beyond a fascination with the stylish, accomplished, smart new first lady. It goes beyond the do's and don't's of sleeveless dresses. It's part of a national mini-fetish over women's buff arms.

You may have been too busy reading the stimulus bill to notice this mini-fetish but if you Google around you'll see.

Toned upper arms are as conspicuously displayed in Hollywood as cleavage, which no doubt contributes to the desire of some average women to have them. Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel, Angela Basset and Halle Berry are among the stars lauded for their arm tone.

In the past year or so Madonna has flaunted her muscular arms the way a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model flaunts other attributes. She's not the first woman to sculpt her arms with the dedication Michelangelo brought to stone, but never before has a woman's arm definition excited so many oohs and aahs.

A YouTube video called "Get Strong Arms Like Madonna" has attracted almost 200,000 viewers.

Not everyone, it's true, is impressed that Madonna looks as if she could bench press a football player. An article I read a few months ago suggested that her buff arms were a middle-aged woman's way of compensating for the loss of youth's soft sexiness.

This claim, cruel but with a grain of truth, miffed several women I know, including a friend who until she read it had been feeling good that a recent date had complimented her fit upper arms.

But do men really care about women's upper arms? Some may. Arms, however, aren't high on the list of erogenous zones and I'm not convinced men are nearly as aware of women's arms as other women are.

Not all women care either. But I think many women tone their arms, or notice women who do, for reasons both physical and psychological.

A few of the reasons, beyond the fact that weights help fight osteoporosis: Toned arms suggest strength, and strength suggests confidence. Just a little work offers big rewards; the same cannot be said of other body parts. Toned arms, meanwhile, suggest the other body parts are doing fine.

And bare arms can be tastefully flirtatious, allowing a woman to expose her charms without overexposure.

One woman offers this compelling explanation: "Working my arms makes me feel I'm in control of something."

But sometimes a bare arm is just a bare arm. And, for the record, Washington, D.C. in February is practically summery by Chicago standards. No "flinty Chicago toughness" required, with or without sleeves.

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