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Michelle Obama: An inspiration to any woman hitting the gym

Strong, beautiful, powerful, polished, sculpted. And that's only her upper arms we're talking about.

I'm sure by now you've heard of Sleevegate, the mini-brouhaha surrounding the American first lady's penchant for going sleeveless.

There she was: not only, in her first official White House portrait, on the cover of Vogue in a Jackie Kennedy-style sleeveless sheath, but also surprisingly bare-armed in a sophisticated cocktail dress on the night her husband spoke to Congress.

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She looked fantastic, but in an environment where women traditionally "suit up," was she dressed appropriately?

All of Twitter was aflame with that burning fashion question until even heavyweight pundits such as The New York Times's David Brooks felt compelled to weigh in, joking that as far as he could tell, "one of the main reasons Barack Obama ran for president was so Michelle would have a platform to show her biceps, Thunder and Lightning."

There's no doubt that the new first lady, tall and fit (she works out "like a gladiator" according to one friend), has a head-turning physical presence. Just by virtue of her skin colour, she already looks like no first lady before her.

But apart from invoking her "right to bare arms" (that joke was instantly everywhere) and no doubt inspiring legions of women to get to the gym, how is Michelle Obama performing so far as first lady?

I'd say splendidly.Whether she's turning up in a soup kitchen to dish out lunch, or giving an impromptu history lesson to children visiting the White House, she seems comfortable and engaged. She also seems real.

She doesn't come across (yet) as "perfect" in the old sense. There's no pasted-on smile - it's sometimes tentative and lopsided - and there's no little-womany feel to her. She is serious, well informed and not afraid to articulate the new administration's social goals.

Yet you could argue that Ms. Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who in her last job pulled in more than $300,000 a year, has been reined in, reduced to figurehead status, as almost all first ladies have been before her.

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Even Michelle Obama cannot transform the job of first lady into a giant step for womankind (that would have been a female president, wouldn't it? ).

But by espousing certain causes she can positively affect more lives as the first lady than she ever could as a lawyer. Ms. Obama is a 45-year-old working mom, juggling her No. 1 commitment - bringing up her young daughters - with a heavy schedule that requires her to be highly visible. Sure, she's got hot-and-cold running help in the White House - including her mother - but anyone with school-aged children knows that every day their concerns are your concerns, and no matter how exalted your job there's always that whale project due tomorrow and a failing grade in math to contend with. In that way, she is someone to whom millions of American women can relate.

I also like the photographs of Ms. Obama and her husband heading into what seem now to be weekly working cocktail parties or dinners at the White House, holding hands and grinning broadly. They look like they are having fun, but in a purposeful way. And they look like a team.

At one such dinner, Cindy McCain showed up with her husband Senator John McCain, former presidential rival to Mr. Obama, looking as tense and remote as ever.

In contrast, Ms. Obama, with her mom-in-chief aura and her stated desire to open up the White House more to the public, has a real opportunity to project something more authentic than her predecessors. And to inject compassion into an undeniably troubled time in America.

Mind you, never forget that Laura Bush, with her Texas twang and bright smile, was a hugely popular first lady, even when her hapless husband's numbers were in the toilet. And Laura Bush ironically may have been more subversive than Ms. Obama. Who can forget her legendary answer to her future mother-in-law, Barbara Bush (another formidable first lady), who asked her what she did: "I read, I smoke, and I admire."

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In a New Yorker profile of Michelle Obama published a year ago, when her husband was still battling with Hillary Clinton for the nomination, writer Lauren Collins pegged the future first lady as "deeply conventional" and yet concluded that she "seems like an iconoclast precisely because she's normal."

Now that the first lady's arms have had a full media workout, it will be fascinating to see how "normal" unfolds in the White House. I intend to ponder this question profoundly while I'm at Pilates, toning my upper arms.

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