By Lisa Bain | Women’s Health Magazine
To make a difference in the world, you need to start with your little corner of it. In an exclusive interview, First Lady Michelle Obama sits down with Women’s Health to talk about the importance of confidence, compassion, and self-care.
WOMEN’S HEALTH: At Women’s Health, we promote a lean-forward attitude—encouraging readers to be engaged and informed. This is important in politics, of course, but also at work and in our communities. When did you first realize the importance of finding your own voice?
MICHELLE OBAMA: It had to be [when I was] very young, but I’m sure I wasn’t cognizant of it at the time. And I think that I was one of the fortunate women who found my voice early because I had an older brother, and I was very close to my father—and to my mother too. I was always involved in discussions at the dinner table, and I was always neck and neck with my brother whenever there was an activity. So if my father was playing catch with my brother, I was right there. If he taught him how to box, he taught me how to box. I had this wonderful reinforcement from the men in my life, even though my mom was always somebody who encouraged both of us to express our ideas—she talked to us as if we were little people and not babies or kids.
We do a mentorship program here [at the White House]. And one of the first things that I tell the girls in the program, which is the same thing I tell my daughters, is that you have to learn how to just hear yourself talk and be comfortable with that . . . you should be able to talk about yourself for a good minute in a very upbeat way. I think that a lot of young women aren’t even encouraged to hear—physically hear—their voices. And as women, we carry those insecurities on.
WH: When there’s a strong difference of opinion, discussions—again, political and otherwise—can get unfocused and divisive, and the temptation is to disengage. What advice would you give to women who find themselves pulling back?
MO: As women, we just have to keep in mind that our perspective on life, on every issue, is critical. And if we pull out, the only things left are the opinions of men. My husband, he has wonderful insight, opinions, wisdom–that’s one of the reasons I married him—but his perspective is different from mine because we’ve grown up in different bodies, with a different set of experiences.
. . . Conversations have to be diverse. They have to be complete, with men, and women, and minorities, and people of different sexual orientations, and people who have been raised in urban environments and rural environments. Because all those different experiences need to be brought to bear on the critical issues that we’re facing.
And when we, as women, pull our voices out—whether it’s because of frustration or fear or not wanting to be wrong or not wanting to be criticized—then we’re taking out a key component of the solution.
WH: When did you learn that for yourself?
MO: I think I’m still learning that. I have to overcome my own fears and hesitations about being wrong or looking silly. I have to kind of shake that off to help get to a better answer, if I can. So it’s a constant battle. Because it would be wonderful to sit back and just stay out of the fray and hope that things work out. But they usually don’t.
That’s why it’s so important for women to vote. Generations of women have fought to leave behind a world where we have all the choices and opportunities that men have. We owe it to our daughters–and our sons–to make sure we keep fighting for the world we want to leave for them. Every woman has a voice, and voting is one of the most powerful ways to express it.
WH: Another thing that can stop us is if somebody else is very loud with their opinion. There’s the impulse to think, Well, they must know more than I do.
MO: In honest discussions . . . there is a competition. There’s a competition for ideas or views or perspectives. And oftentimes women are socialized away from competition.
We’re just now starting to get the practice [in this] because of the gains that we’ve made for women to be able to be involved in sports. I didn’t grow up having the same opportunities as my brother to compete athletically. Even though I was athletically gifted and interested, the amount of girls’ softball teams and leagues–they just were less available.
Learning how to compete and get in there and mix it up, and then have the game over and shake hands and call it a day and not take it personally–that’s part of learning how to compete in the debate of ideas . . . I think men sometimes do a better job of that.
If we’re teaching our young girls to be OK with competing, and we’re getting used to it too–even sweating, tripping, losing, winning, learning how to win with grace, how to lose with dignity–all that is the practice for all these things that we need women to be in all these other settings. Which is why I think your magazine is amazing, because it’s forcing us to exercise our bodies, which in so many ways pushes our brains to different levels and prepares us for being at the political table, or using our voices, or being able to lay out our ideas in the boardroom even though there’s a louder, more obnoxious voice at the other end.
WH: Is there a confidence-boosting pep talk you give yourself?
MO: Well, sometimes I give myself a break. So I will retreat a moment from the fray, just to breathe. Because what I’ve learned is that my immediate reaction cannot be the deciding reaction. So sometimes I just sort of step back a second, and while I’m stepping back, I talk. I reach out to my friends, my mom, my girlfriends; I vent, I release, I have sounding boards, I get pep talks from colleagues and staff, and then I go back in.
. . . We each have to find our own coping mechanisms–and this isn’t just in terms of the hesitation of finding our voice, but in how we deal with our own stress. It’s almost like sports. You have to learn how to play through a loss, play through pain, play through an embarrassing decision on the field. Maybe you get a time-out, you go on the sidelines, but you’re going to get back in.
WH: Time is another constraining factor that can keep women from being engaged. Is there specific advice you can give for juggling or prioritizing?
MO: Many people would love to have less on their plate, many women would. But it’s just the nature of the beast, our lives. Because of that, I would advise people to be practical . . . We can start in our own universe, which is our family. We can even move backward from there and start with ourselves, because we have to be whole individuals. We have to feel confident and good about ourselves, and we have to know ourselves, and we have to invest in knowing ourselves before we’re going to be a good school-board member, before we’re going to be a good politician, before we’re going to be a good parent.
So the smallness of the bite does not correlate to the power of the overall impact. But whatever we do, let’s really commit to it, and let’s try to be our very best . . . Then your sphere of desired influence is going to grow. You’ll know where you need to go because you know why you’re doing it, and you’re being motivated by a direct passion and direct self-interest. And there’s nothing wrong with women operating out of their own individual self-interest.
And we [all] need to think as a team of women. By that, I mean we always need to be rooting for each other, regardless of where we come from, what our political affiliations are. I think it starts with women understanding that we are all on the same team. I don’t care what race we are, what religion we are . . . We are never competing with each other, because we’re all working toward the same goal: building a healthy society. We may have different ways of coming at it, we may have different perspectives, different backgrounds, but we all really want the same thing.
If we’re operating under that basic premise, then we’re going to find space for each other at the table. We’re going to encourage each other’s voices. We’re going to let somebody run out in front while we take care of things. We’re going to help prop other women up.