Why All Teenage Girls Should Read 'Becoming'

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While most of us know Michelle Obama as the inspiring former First Lady or the smooth dancer who outdoes the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon, she was once a teenage girl who faced the milestones as we did. Her 2018 memoir Becoming is a must-read, especially for those who seek to apply her advice to their own lives.

Mrs. Obama weaves a common theme throughout her book: the struggle to attain perfection. She recounts that as a young girl, she told adults that she was an aspiring pediatrician to earn their approval, and her decision to attend two Ivy League universities was fueled more by ambition than a true desire to pursue law. As we enter college and beyond, our lives seem to be defined by the length of our LinkedIn profiles or the abundance of pictures on our Instagram pages. However, the First Lady advises us not to fall into the same pattern of perfectionism in both our personal and professional lives. One of the most intimate chapters of her book describes her miscarriage and subsequent efforts to have two children via in vitro fertilization. On the outside, this seems to be simply a raw depiction of her journey toward motherhood, but her struggles with fertility actually serve as a larger metaphor for her previous fixation on perfection. Mrs. Obama suggests that sometimes, factors we cannot control may derail our plans, but we should not interpret these circumstances as personal failures.

The First Lady’s meditations on racism and sexism also strike a chord for girls of color. As a young African-American woman, she was aware of the double standard imposed on her by society, a fact that became even more evident when her guidance counselor told her that she was not “Princeton material.” She explains her feelings of inadequacy at Princeton, a predominantly white school, and her insecurity when campaigning for her husband to be president in 2008. Yet, the constant pressure to be graceful, poised, and polished in front of large audiences helped Mrs. Obama realize that she had to advocate for herself to be heard. Thus, she was able to expand her own team of communications specialists and others to solidify her public messages and make a larger impact. Through her stories, Michelle Obama teaches young girls that we have to voice our own opinions even when it seems that no one wants to listen.

One of the most important lessons to be gleaned from Becoming is that teenage girls can strive to make a change by addressing issues most familiar to us. When the First Lady’s daughter Malia had an increasing body mass index as a child, Mrs. Obama realized that Americans’ eating habits were a major problem. It was comforting to find out that like many Americans, the First Lady made frequent runs to the McDonald’s drive-thru before living in the White House and learned how to transform her family’s eating regimen with the help of a chef, Sam Kass. Her Let’s Move! campaign and endeavor to grow a White House vegetable garden to provide fresh food prove that we can facilitate change in our communities one step at a time.

Becoming transcends the cliches of “rags to riches” or “self-made celebrity,” instead offering a portrait of a flawed but determined woman whose story relates to that of many teenage girls. According to the former First Lady, we do not have to package ourselves to fit the image of what society wants us to be. As girls who are starting to become women, we can begin our journey by embracing our trials and victories, our imperfections and strengths.