Michelle Obama is heroically, confoundingly, inspiringly, troublingly, soothingly, nation-unitingly, international-incident-launchingly tall. Among first ladies, only Eleanor Roosevelt, who stood seven foot three in farm boots, could begin to rival her magisterial altitude. (Jackie Kennedy was actually four six and made all public appearances on shapely ergonomic flesh-colored stilts.) Mrs. Obama’s exact height has been a subject of serious debate for many years now. Some authorities list her at five eleven, others at five nine or five ten, while others insist that she exceeds traditional human measures altogether. The debate is made infinitely more difficult by Mrs. Obama’s ability to alter our perception of her height using her much-touted “fashion sense”: Wearing horizontal stripes, seated on an average-size divan, she can appear to be only three or four feet taller than adjacent heads of state. But several years ago she wore a particularly high pair of heels to a fund-raiser, and caused Pluto to swing three degrees out of orbit and lose its planetary status. Some astronomers have speculated that, because of the limited speed of light, when Michelle Obama smiles at us we are actually seeing a facial expression she made six months ago. It is yet another testament to her otherworldly wisdom that she manages to coordinate these expressions with events currently happening on Earth.
The first lady’s awesome gigantism is not, of course, entirely trivial. In ancient Egyptian statuary, height was coordinated precisely with social status, and our culture still feels this instinctive bias. We project images of our most socially impressive citizens onto billboards the size of buildings and screens as big as technology allows. Seeing a movie star’s un-giant human reality is often jarring, disappointing—we feel we’ve been deceived. Michelle Obama fulfills our childish instinct for perfect height-glory correspondence. She is, like so few of us, life-size.