The Sad Truth Behind Michelle Obama's Strategic White House Hairstyles

Being the First Lady of the U.S. is far from an easy job, but one person in particular had to navigate very tricky waters to ensure she represented the White House in a dignified manner. Though her fashion sense was almost always impeccable, Michelle Obama still wore some inappropriate outfits that drew criticism at the time, such as wearing a sleeveless shift dress to husband Barack Obama's 2016 State of the Union address (some critics felt this wasn't the place for her to exercise her right to bare arms). She also had to make one particular style choice no other first lady has ever had to face: As the nation's first Black FLOTUS, Obama was concerned about being judged if she wore her hair in its natural state or in braids.

In an interview with Revolt TV (per Harper's Bazaar UK), Michelle Obama explained her decision to keep her hair in a straightened bob or shag during her eight years her husband was in office. Knowing the public was wary of having a Black first family, she wanted to avoid seeming unrelatable or controversial. "We were the first. And I was like, first of all, they've got to get used to us," Obama said. "When we did a fist bump with each other, they turned that into a terrorist act. Who needs the hassle?"

Now that her Pennsylvania Avenue days are long behind her, Obama has no such hesitations about embracing her true hair — and fans agree that she looks even more beautiful than ever.

Black women are still judged on their hair

Black women have faced struggles similar to Michelle Obama's for generations. In the era of the slave trade, slaves had their heads shaved or covered, which came to signify their lower status. Hair texture could mean the difference between hard field labor and less arduous positions; women with less kinky hair had a better chance of being made house servants. That perception of supposedly superior straight hair led Black women to hot irons and straightening products to change the texture of their locks. Only in the latter half of the 20th century did natural styles and Afros gain popularity as a personal and cultural statement. Even so, unconscious biases die hard. A 2020 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that potential employers were less likely to recommend Black women for professional positions — especially "when they applied for a job in an industry with strong dress norms" — if the women were shown with natural hair.

Few jobs have stronger dress norms than that of the first lady, and Obama was well aware of that when her husband was elected. During a book tour promoting "The Light We Carry" (per The Hill), she said she used to worry her staff by joking she wanted to try wearing braids. But she knew what the reaction would likely be: "Remember when she wore braids? Those are terrorist braids! Those are revolutionary braids!" So the first lady took the less controversial option: "Let me keep my hair straight. Let's get health care passed."

The Obama daughters embrace their natural hair too

In a stunning transformation, Michelle Obama is now more often seen with various braided styles and high topknots, showing her pride in her identity and post-White House style. It's a huge change from the days when she had to use protective hairstyles like weaves to prevent serious damage to her hair. As she told Revolt TV (via Harper's Bazaar UK), "You get your hair done every day [as first lady] and sometimes twice a day if you're outside jumping jacks in the rain. I would not have any hair on my head if I straightened it as much as I had to straighten it."

The Obama daughters are following in their mother's lead. Like her, they previously sported blowouts and tight ponytails as first daughters, but their recent public appearances show their embrace of the natural look. Malia Obama turned up the heat with a stunning red shade on her flowing curls when she appeared at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Younger sister Sasha experimented with a blue shade at age 16; she's long since returned to a darker color, but she, too, has been spotted with cornrows, waves, and other curl-friendly styles.

Michelle Obama hasn't commented publicly on her daughters' hair evolution, but it's a good guess she approves. As she told "Good Morning America" in 2021, "I always have wanted them to start practicing the power of their voices very early on" — and hair can certainly make a powerful statement.