November 16, 2022 - 3:00pm

When the waifish ‘heroin chic’ of the 2000s gave way to a sturdier, gym-toned female ideal in the women’s magazines and social media of the 2010s, many commentators interpreted this as a sign of progress. Then-first lady Michelle Obama’s exquisitely defined arms were the perfect symbol of this new form of beauty. In 2012, Obama’s on-air push-up competition with TV host Ellen DeGeneres was widely praised as an unembarrassed display of women’s strength, even a “feminist joy.”

But Obama has since dialled back on her gruelling exercise regime, admitting in an interview this week that as she approaches menopause she is no longer able to put in the work necessary to maintain “Michelle Obama arms.” 

Because of course the new strong ideal takes just as much effort to achieve as the old thin one — not only in terms of diet and exercise, but also in new kinds of medical interventions. When the flat bottom of the catwalk model went out of fashion, women all of sudden wanted Kim Kardashian-style glutes. And for those unwilling or unable to achieve the look in the gym, there was a new surgical procedure, the Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) — the most dangerous cosmetic procedure in the world

The odd thing about all of these (sometimes dangerous) trends in female beauty is that they are only tangentially related to sexual attraction. Straight male sexual preferences are extremely consistent, revealed by the ancient love goddesses, sex dolls, porn stars, and eroticised cartoon characters which all generally share the same basic set of features: a small waist, moderately large breasts, and a slim but not skinny physique. 

But the fashion industry is almost entirely run by gay men and straight women, which means that it is largely indifferent to these preferences. Even Victoria’s Secret lingerie models — supposedly the sexiest kind of model — have average measurements of 32-24-34 in contrast to the much curvier average for sex dolls of 39-24-39. But then, Victoria’s Secret products are overwhelmingly bought by women, who very often do not realise that men like much bigger backsides and breasts than what we typically see on the catwalk. 

If women were better informed on what straight men really find attractive, might the aspirational beauty standard change? I doubt it. Because these standards are only partly about sexiness. There is also an economic status hierarchy that is made visible in a person’s flesh, and this is where we see fashions playing out, as new kinds of diet and exercise practices become more or less popular among the rich.  

As Arnold Schwarzenegger has said of bodybuilding, “there are no shortcuts — everything is reps, reps, reps.” The only way one can achieve muscular “Michelle Obama arms” is through self-discipline – exactly the kind of self-discipline that also translates into professional success in a brutally meritocratic work world that rewards early starts, long hours, and all forms of self-denial. 

So when Obama said on the Ellen DeGeneres show that her daily routine involved waking up at 5:30 and spending an hour and a half every morning working out, she was telling viewers (and voters) that she has the kind of industrious temperament that is well suited to membership of the twenty-first century elite. It was a status display, in other words, and a particularly rarefied one, given that “Michelle Obama arms” cannot be bought, they can only be earned.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.