Obama on dressing, eating, shopping, and decision-making

October’s Vanity Fair has a riveting article on Obama by Michael Lewis. One section in particular, I found fascinating:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions on what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t go through your day distracted by trivia.”

Do you hear what our president is saying, women? Obama is saying that if he spends his mental energy thinking about what to wear, what to eat, and what to buy, he has depleted his resources. He’s got nothing left. He couldn’t be president.

What is it, exactly, that the media tells women are the most important, most crucial areas of our lives? Dressing, eating, and shopping. Those are the three areas where women are actually allowed, supposed to be, the experts.

Is it a coincidence that Obama believes not thinking about those three issues releases the energy that allows him to act effectively as president?

It almost makes me think there’s a conspiracy going on, or maybe more like a social reflex. Women take on that “trivia” while men can choose not to. They’re free to go be president. What would happen if women stopped, really stopped, spending our time and energy obsessing about clothing, food, or shopping? What would we do?

20 thoughts on “Obama on dressing, eating, shopping, and decision-making

  1. The first thing I thought of after reading this was something I read in the Bible. I believe that Jesus Christ himself asked the question: ‘Do sparrows worry about what clothes to wear?’ (Or it could have been flowers instead of sparrows I can’t remember.) And I think he also mentioned something about diet in the same speech.
    But it pretty much makes the same point. Even Jesus believed that worrying about things such as clothes over more important things was pointless.

    Both Jesus and Obama are onto something there. And I agree with them. I have too many things to worry about before I get into diet and clothes. Like getting my first ever job and what path I’m going to take in my future and making art I could sell and writing my novel and feeding myself and the cat on an invalids benefit and a power company that has ripped me off once or twice. And I am quite chubby and the contents of my wardrobe is very…crap (and falling apart because I rarely by clothes). And I’m certain that there are people out there who have MUCH more important things to worry about.

    I never even thought about this before I read your post. So very awesome post BTW 🙂 I find the idea that women are probably forced to believe that they need to worry about trivial things a bit disturbing. It is very damaging.

    PS. Could Jesus and Obama be feminists?

    • Hi nigelthe dragon,

      great points! Yes, Jesus was a feminist, he treated women, including prostitutes, as equals– revolutionary for his time and, sadly, today. Obama is a feminist in principle but I wish he would act more in that dorection.


  2. This actually has been proven in business. Decisions made early in the day are usually better than the ones you make later on. Which is why it has been suggested that narrowing your choices on unimportant things like breakfast, lunch, and what to wear to work are actually good things, because they free your mind for the more important, bigger decisions.

    President Obama isn’t saying he doesn’t make decisions in those areas – he’s saying he limits his decision-making in those areas. ANYONE can do that; it isn’t limited to gender. It is trivia in general that he stays away from, because trivia (in whatever form it may take in each person’s life) CAN suck you away from what’s important (again, whatever that may be for someone).

    I don’t see this as a gender issue at all, and am kind of surprised that you took it that way.

    • Hi Christine,

      Yes, Obama is saying he limits his decision-making in “trivial” areas, in part by “routinizing.” It is a gender issue in that, typically, what powerful men see as trivia– dressing, eating, and shopping– is billed as important in the lives of women. The process of decision-making is not gender specific, WHAT women versus men are supposed to spend their time and energy on is gender specific.


  3. Honestly, I think it’s the other way around: not given worthy occupations or challenges, women are left with nothing to do with their energy or time and use trivia as a way of, well, not dusting away to death.

    Then there’s the fact that people need some color in their lives, president Obama has a lot going on around him, and he plays a crucial role in several issues, of course then many things may look trivial or unimportant to him.

    But to the stay-at-home mom (and not the rich kind, the one that has to take care of house and kids) or the working at a minimum salary woman, taking some time off to dress differently or look for promotions at different places to live comfortably with little money are certainly not trivial, silly “women preocupations”.

    • Hi Aninha,

      I see your point but it’s more complicated than that.

      When I had an eating disorder– an extreme example but not uncommon– a huge amount of my mental energy was spent thinking about food, what I had eaten, what I was going to eat, and what I weighed. When I recovered, I was amazed by the mental energy I freed up. I started a non-profit and started publishing my writing, among many other things I never would have done if I spent my time thinking about food and weight.

      As far as people needing color in their lives, I actually think color and excitement comes in when you clear up space for it. Dressing up occasionally is fun. Getting dressed as a crucial part of your day, a part of determining your success, IMO, sucks.

      And also, looking for sales is one thing. Shopping as a “woman’s activity,” as a competitive skill you can “win”, as for example female Olympic athletes recently promoted it in an advertising campaign for Kohl’s, is offensive and a diversion. Shopping promoted in female cartoon characters like Bratz or Lego Friends for girls, is sexist and demeaning.


      • I get what you’re saying and I agree. There are still some things that deserve a mention, advising women to put less energy in what is deemed “trivial” is a great advice, but only for a small set of women.

        I saw this case on tv a while ago of a black woman suing a company because she was explicitly told they would hire her, but only if she agreed to straighten her hair. Many women of color and even white privileged women just have to worry about appearance, to advise them not to as if that was the problem is suggesting the importance society places on their looks is a result of what they do, and not the other way around.

        We also need to remember that for many people, the way they dress or present themselves is a part of personnal expression.

        • Hi Aninha,

          I have blogged a lot about how women’s success and power is directly tied to the way they look. Women don’t spend time and money on their appearance because they are stupid or superficial, but because they care about their survival. Underscoring this is the social reality that the more power men get, the more “sexy” they are, whereas women’s power in the professional world does the opposite: threatens to take away from their sexuality. If a powerful woman is considered sexy it is in spite of her career, not because of it.

          I disagree that its trivial only for a small set of women. For all women, how you dress is supposed to be important. Look at Hillary Clinton and how people obsess about her pantsuits or how the newscaster asked her what designer she was wearing. Across the board, women are valued for how they look, whether you’re a kid in high school or Secretary of State. The only way this will change is for more women to get in power and change the way people think. I do agree that to get there, we’ve got to spend a certain about of energy on how we look because the world is set up to value that. If we completely ignore it, its even harder to get people to take you seriously. How I think we could free up energy, though, is less mental energy spent obsessing.



        • I am one of those people who feels that the way they present themselves if part of their personal expression of self. I think this discussion is relying on extremes in a way that is limiting. To not think about your wardrobe beyond looking presentable in order to increase your potential for success seems stifling to me. Then again, I do design clothes as a hobby. I don’t know. I think this verges dangerously near the concept that if a woman spends time doing her makeup or if she dresses a certain way she can’t also be capable and intelligent.

          • I strongly disagree with that interpretation of the article. It’s not talking about people who specifically choose their clothes as a deliberate expression of their selves. It’s talking about the supposed “need” for women to worry about how they look taking their energy away from other things.

          • @Rachel I’m replying more to the comment section than the article. I feel like the conversation is dominated by this idea of “need” and “we’ve got to spend a certain about of energy on how we look because the world is set up to value that”. And that if we spent less time thinking about those things we could accomplish more. While I believe that if thinking about those things makes you happy and contributes to your self representation then it is productive. And I still have energy to divert to other things. I’m just saying it’s not all or nothing and just because you might not view it is as a good use of your time, it doesn’t mean the only benefit is to increase your chances of success because that’s what society dictates.

          • Hi Cat,

            This is how I think of it in my life: I have 3 little kids and I am writing a book among other things. I spend a lot less time thinking about what to wear and shopping at this time in my life. I basically wear the same thing everyday– which I like– jeans and a jewel toned shirt. I checked out your blog by the way and I like it a lot.


  4. D’accord avec toi. Ca montre bien que même s’il fait des efforts, il est quand même le produit d’une socialisation qui porte un jugement hiérarchique de valeur sur les activités traditionnellement “homme” et les activités traditionnellement “femmes”.
    Chassez le “naturel” (l’acquis) et il revient au galop!

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