I suppose there’s no end to commenting on the public behavior of the First Lady of the United States, whoever she may be. I’m old enough to remember griping about Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a previous job, I once had to arrange a visit for Laura Bush when her husband was President — nice lady, maniacal staff.
Michelle Obama has the distinction of being the first African American FLOTUS and the burden of holding the position in the Age of Twitter, so it’s no wonder that her every move is catalogued and critiqued. I’ll admit to paying lots of attention to her myself, though I am agnostic on her bangs and was asleep during her Oscars presentation.
But I will defend her campaign against childhood obesity and her passion for physical fitness against all who deride it. Usually that criticism comes from the right — those who worry about a “nanny state” and forget that her voice is only a counterweight to the well-funded orchestrated efforts by the junk food industrial complex to keep Americans filled with fat, salt and sugar and hungry for more.
Sometimes it comes from the newspaper columnists you would think would be more sympathetic.
“Enough with the broccoli and Brussels sprouts,” wrote Courtland Milloy, a local columnist for The Washington Post. Milloy argued that the Princeton-educated, Harvard graduate, intellectually gifted First Lady ought to be engaged in more substantive subjects.
Excuse me? Childhood obesity is not a frivolous development. It is a public health catastrophe in the making. And more: In an editorial I wrote last year, I noted that a nonpartisan group of 100 retired military leaders issued a report in September warning that 27% of America’s 17-to-24-year-olds are “too fat to fight,” making obesity the greatest threat to national security.
This is an issue I wish we would discuss more in the Jewish community — how to promote healthy, sustainable diets in our homes, schools and synagogues. You only have to glance at the kiddush table on a Saturday morning to see how much this is needed.
I can’t help but wonder whether Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and her focus on healthy eating is dismissed in part because it seems like a less-than-serious women’s thing. While it’s true that we women have traditionally been the ones to feed our families, this issue has far more national consequence than the immediate question of what’s for dinner (and I’m sure there are men who worry about that, too.)
Obama is using her unique celebrity to get us all to focus on a genuine epidemic that has public health, economic and even military consequences. And if she shows off her awesome arms to get our attention — good for her.
And did you see her dancing with Jimmy Fallon? Brilliant.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.