When I was born in 1990, the ratted, poufy hairstyles of the 1980s were on their way out—and not a year too soon. I inherited stick-straight hair from my mother. Luckily, the 90s and 2000s were kind to me; I’ve still never used a straightener in my life.
But although I survived adolescence relatively unscathed, I, too, faced my share of unflattering hairstyles. The worst offender? Three words: Straight-across bangs.
So I should be dismayed to hear that straight-across bangs are back in style—and in a big way. Ever since First Lady Michelle Obama debuted her new ‘do at the presidential swearing in and inauguration last month, chunky, bold bangs have rocketed to popularity. Everyone from Kate Middleton to Karl Lagerfeld has weighed in, and while some have complained that the fuss over her tresses distracts from her message, I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Those bangs epitomize Mrs. Obama’s status as a cultural icon, which few first ladies have achieved, and they pack a powerful political statement, whether or not you approve of her husband’s policies. In short: Michelle Obama’s bangs matter.
Even though bangs in the 90s epitomized the absence of style sense (see: my elementary school photos), bangs otherwise have been a symbol of female self-expression. As Smithsonian Magazinepoints out, bangs have been making headlines since the 20th century when dancers and movie stars began bobbing their hair. The flapper style symbolized a “rebellious attitude about women’s traditional roles.”
But now the need for women to rebel against “traditional roles” is essentially over. Thus, to many women Mrs. Obama’s bangs represent a rebellion against different societal beliefs, against the notion that women today cannot be both powerful and feminine, substantial and stylish. After all, what other image of womanhood is driving conversation this week? It’s the newly released annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which this year offers women a guide on how to look like a model. It practically screams that although we may be successful in other endeavors, the majority of women never will grace the pages of Sports Illustrated—and are doomed to be unsatisfied. In its own way, Sport Illustrated proves the notion first suggested by Anne Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic last year: Women cannot have it all, whether “all” means both family and career, or power and femininity.
Yet, the media furor over Michelle Obama’s bangs is evidence that the FLOTUS does have it all, and our society is intrigued because of it. The First Lady doesn’t appear to have followed Sports Illustrated’sguide to beauty, but we’ve known for years that Mrs. O is a model of physical beauty. If there is any doubt left about that, recall her toned biceps and the women’s magazines that still offer workout guides that guarantee “Michelle Obama arms.” Now, the bangs further emphasize Mrs. O’s status as a body-positive icon in an image-conscious society. She can chalk them up to a “midlife crisis,” but those bangs are redefining ‘the look’ of a strong woman.
Politically speaking, though the bangs are bigger than the biceps. Smithsonian aptly notes that Mrs. O isn’t the first FLOTUS to drive the media mad for her style: “We haven’t had a fashion-forward first lady like this since Jackie Kennedy.” In this way, Michelle’s bangs matter the same way Jackie’s iconic sunglasses and Parisian bouffant hair did, inspiring more women to pay attention to Washington politics—even if we just tune in to see what she’ll wear next.
If that’s the case, the First Lady has the power to transcend politics like few others have, and in a more meaningful way than Jackie O ever did. Forget not that this beautiful woman is also a Harvard-educated lawyer, one who—unlike most other politicians—captured a 73 percent approval rating from us last December. With former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s exit from the federal government (for now), Mrs. Obama is poised to spend the next four years as the most powerful woman in Washington—and the most effective, too.
The new bangs actually are key in this endeavor, though they seem trivial to those of us who likely would pay attention to Washington politics anyway. Yes, the bangs have sparked nonsensical chatter and a hilarious Twitter account. But they have given her sway with a new audience as she, like her husband, begins her second term in the White House. If she capitalizes on Americans’ notoriously short attention spans, Mrs. Obama (and her bangs) likely will having us paying attention when she speaks about what really matters to her. That could be renewed support for her first-term “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. She could shift gears entirely and emphasizes women’s or family issues. Now more than ever, a wider audience of American women (and men) are paying attention to Michelle because of her hair.
It’s been silly conversation so far, but if she keeps it going—and maybe persuades more of us to listen—then Michelle Obama will be one of the most effective politicians in Washington today. Pre-bangs, she already had nearly three-quarters of us sure of her appeal. Now that I’m really paying attention, she can convince me to do pretty much anything—except get straight-across bangs.
-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.