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CAPITAL CULTURE: Michelle Obama's shorts flap

By now, Michelle Obama has firmly established her sartorial right to bare arms. But baring thighs may be another matter.
/ Source: The Associated Press

By now, Michelle Obama has firmly established her sartorial right to bare arms. But baring thighs may be another matter.

Photographs of the first lady descending the steps of Air Force One in shorts have the media in a sweat. Some are saying Mrs. Obama — on her way to the Grand Canyon for a family vacation — may have revealed too much skin.

Mrs. Obama is no stranger to public scrutiny over her fashion decisions, including exposing her bare arms or wearing expensive sneakers to a soup kitchen. When Anya Strzemien, style editor at The Huffington Post, saw Obama's shorts, she knew there would be interest.

"I thought the fact that she wore shorts was newsworthy because she's the first first lady to wear shorts on Air Force One," Strzemien said. "I was interested as a newsperson because it was a first. A lot of things the Obamas have done have been firsts."

She posted a poll for readers to explain what they thought: Most were in favor of the outfit, but others thought the shorts were inappropriate or too short.

NBC's "Today" show poll had similar results with a whopping 300,000 people responding to the vote. The blog post was the show's most commented-on of 2009, said Dee Dee Thomas, a "Today" senior producer.

What does this show?

"That people love talking about Michelle Obama," Thomas said. "She's pushing the envelope on how we see the first lady."

And it's clear the media loves talking about Michelle Obama, too. Many news outlets rallied to the first lady's defense, noting that she was on vacation when she wore the shorts over the weekend, in sweltering desert heat.

"What should she have worn to the Grand Canyon? A tweed pantsuit? A ballgown? What do you wear on your summer vacation?" asked Elizabeth Snead of the Los Angeles Times.

But others wondered from whom, exactly, the media was defending the first lady.

"Everyone is up in arms — if by 'everyone' you mean no one, or rather a large, shadow-y group of no ones," Kate Dailey wrote for Newsweek. "August is a slow news month, and covering people who are actually shocked and outraged about health care can only fill so many minutes in the Twitterfied news cycle."

True, there were critics online, as there tend to be.

"Why not wear linen pants ... more tasteful," Charlie Smith, of Montgomery, Ala., wrote on the "Today" site. "She may have been on vacation ... but she should respect the Office of the President and the USA."

But it was clear most responses fell firmly on the side of shorts.

"First Lady Michelle Obama looks great in her shorts and it shouldn't even be a news worthy issue ... Leave her alone," wrote Joann Begonja, of North Bellmore, N.Y.

"Get a grip folks — these aren't 'Daisy Duke' shorts," echoed John Johnson of Dover, Ohio. "Looks O.K. to me and I am NOT an Obama fan by any stretch of the imagination!"

Mrs. Obama's office had no comment on the matter.

Thomas, the "Today" producer, said she wasn't surprised by the support for the outfit.

"I would be surprised to hear of any woman in her 40s who has not worn shorts," she said. "She's a mother of two tweens on vacation in the hottest place in the country."

Mary Tomer, founder of the New York City-based blog, which chronicles Mrs. Obama's style, said the brouhaha over her legs is media-created.

"From what I can tell most people are wondering how this became major news," Tomer said. "Who doesn't wear shorts while hiking in the Grand Canyon in mid-August with your family?"

It's real-world style that makes Mrs. Obama a fashion icon, said Mandi Norwood, author of the book "Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion." She cannot be expected to be a practical, down-to-earth woman, but also dressed up in pencil skirts and designer shoes all the time.

"She's comfortable in her own skin," she said. "This is a very practical statement by a very practical person."

Norwood said she didn't think the choice of shorts was the most flattering for Obama, but that the whole conversation about it is a "ridiculous style storm."

Still, don't expect people to stop talking about her clothing.

"We draw conclusions from what she wears because that's all we have to go on," Norwood said. "But also, it's fun."