Editor’s note: Tanya Tarr is a director of Legislative and Political Mobilization for the Texas American Federation of Teachers. She is also a facilitator at Sidekick Coaching and blogs at Becoming Texan. She is on Twitter.
On a trip to Dallas, Texas, a year ago, I wandered into the flagship Neiman Marcus store. At the time, I was probably looking for a restroom. Two hours later, I was the unexpected owner of a silk dress in silver leopard print, cut in the universally flattering A-line pattern, from a major designer label. It was the first dress I had ever bought for more than about $50. The second I put it on, I felt not just chic and confident -- I felt bullet proof. This was armor with a lace hem.
In Washington D.C., where I had spent a decade building a career, being frumpy was a sort of fashion statement itself. The attitude was an unspoken “I’m so busy and consumed with national and international affairs that I can’t possibly pay attention to what I put on this morning.” Or, similarly, people would default to a New Yorker style, where all black clothing means no need to match. Who has time to put together outfits when they’re reading the voluminous Economist cover-to-cover or National Journal’s Hotline on an iPhone?
But living and fighting the political game in Texas is a whole other beast. I had just gotten beaten up by a nasty election season, followed by a nastier legislative session. My generally fearless self was bereft of the confidence one needs to bluff and bluster in the blood sport of getting people elected.
I realized that unlike D.C., in Texas, women used their femininity like semi-automatic weapons. The more intense the situation, the more feminine they seemed to get -- higher heels, higher hair, and hotter shades of pink. This was a completely foreign notion to me.
A couple of years of living in Texas and after working with Donna Ingram -- an incredible stylist -- I am starting to get what Texan ladies have always known. When you look good, your confidence is another layer of protective armor.
I also found that the ultra-feminine and retro cuts of clothing were surprisingly flattering to my curvy figure.
As I got more confident in dressing, my body insecurities started to evaporate. I started to realize that looking good was completely complementary to every other feminist ideal I might maintain. What was previously considered a fluffy topic (fashion) was transforming my perspective in ways that bolstered more traditionally feminist parts of my life (like body image and career).
So when Michelle Obama strode out on the stage during the Democratic National Convention in a stunning pink jacquard silk dress, I was utterly struck by her beauty and confidence -- and I knew what that dress might mean to our first lady. That dress was hot pink armor with a turquoise hem.
It took me a second to realize that my gushing over that dress might come across as fluffy to some of my feminist (and coastal) friends. Wasn’t her speech the main event? How dare I even suggest that she was upstaged by a piece of clothing? It took me a second to realize what was going on. To my way of thinking, wasn’t it obvious that the first lady’s speech was heartfelt, authentic, and sublime? Why would lusting after her dress necessarily mean that I wasn’t paying attention to her speech?
The Facebook and Twitter comments that ensued were educational. I realized that feminism (as we might define that term) is evolving yet again. Yes, we need to have equal pay and economic opportunities that are not barred by gender -- but it is still feminist to choose to embrace the more traditional roles women inhabit.
Our mom-in-chief didn’t just humanize her husband and our president, which was a weighty task itself. She showed us how a strong woman can be gracious, magnetic, nice -- and still make crushing points.
She deftly showed us that being traditionally feminine is not only the domain of our Republican sisters, but that it is a trait shared by women left of the aisle. You can have a law degree, be a working mom and an engaged partner (even the most powerful man in the world), and wear a stunning hot pink gown with flawless makeup and perfectly matching shoes.
Being authentically feminist can mean being smart, successful and pretty -- and being pretty does not detract from the success or the smarts. Feminism can expand to include all parts of womanhood.
For me, Mrs. Obama’s appearance gave us permission to bring back the pretty.