Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe Sasha and Malia Obama, “strong”, “smart”, and “beautiful” were the ones President Obama chose in his victory speech on Tuesday night.
It is difficult to imagine a president congratulating his sons for being handsome. So why was it appropriate for Obama to praise 11-year-old Sasha and 14-year-old Malia for their beauty?
“Sasha and Malia, before our very eyes, you’re growing up to become two strong, smart, beautiful young women, just like your mom,” said the newly re-elected President. “And I am so proud of you guys.”
Obama’s comments beg the question of why a girl’s beauty should be source of pride for her father— and why beauty should be a value lauded alongside strength and intelligence.
The President may have been directing his comments at only two people, but he had the ears of the world, and on a day that should have been a triumph for women, his remarks stung.
More women were elected to Congress than ever before. Congressman Todd Akin of “legitimate rape” notoriety was soundly defeated in Missouri. The party that advocates women’s right to choose prevailed.
This campaign reminded us that the presidency is a symbolic role as much as a practical one. Voters overlooked Obama’s failure to revive the economy and reduce the deficit, ultimately pulling the lever for the candidate who has consistently come first in likability if not in job approval.
Every evidence suggests that Obama takes his role as a figurehead seriously. On Father’s Day 2008, he famously chastised fathers who fail to engage with their children. He has made a point of going on “dates” with Michelle and spending time with his daughters in spite of his busy schedule.
It is disappointing that on Tuesday, Obama— a liberal President seen as a champion for women’s rights— conformed to the ideology that sets up beauty as something young girls should aspire to. Women are voted into office with more and more regularity and Obama has appointed women to top Cabinet positions, but girls are still praised not only for their accomplishments but for their appearance.