Michelle Obama on struggling to love her body: 'When I'm looking at the mirror, I still see what's wrong'

UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 27: In this screengrab, Michelle Obama presents the Social Justice Impact Award during the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on March 27, 2021. (Photo by NAACP via Getty Images)
Former first lady Michelle Obama is an open book when it comes to her journey to self-love. (Photo: NAACP via Getty Images)

Michelle Obama has never been one to hold back.

Ahead of the Nov. 15 release of her book The Light We Carry, the former first lady, 58, opened up to People about the ins and outs of aging, body image and how she's dealing with menopause — including her experience with hormone replacement therapy.

"There is not a lot of conversation about menopause," Obama explained. "I'm going through it, and I know all of my friends are going through it. And the information is sparse."

"I've had to work with hormones, and that's new information that we're learning," she added. "Before there were studies that said that hormones were bad. That's all we heard. Now we're finding out research is showing that those studies weren't fully complete and that there are benefits to hormone replacement therapy. You're trying to sort through the information and the studies and the misinformation. So I'm right there."

Obama admits that she's been spared from having major mood swings, a common side effect of menopause, and that her new fitness routine focuses more on flexibility than building muscle. And she's OK with that.

"I find that I cannot push myself as hard as I used to. That doesn't work out for me; that when I tear a muscle or pull something and then I'm out. The recovery time is not the same," she said. "You wind up balancing between staying fit enough and being kind enough on your body to stay in the game."

Despite such lifestyle changes, Obama counts herself "blessed" by the overall experience, saying that her goal is no longer to have "Michelle Obama arms," but rather to simply "keep moving."

"If I can walk and move, I don't have to run. I don't have to beat everyone. I've had to change the way I see myself in my health space," she said. "I never used to weigh myself. I'm not trying to stick to numbers, but when you're in menopause, you have this slow creep that you just don't realize."

Having a community of friends her own age also helps.

"We're all in menopause with stretchy [waist] bands and our athleisure wear on, and you look up and you can't fit the outfits you had last year," she quipped. "I have to be more mindful, not obsessive, but more mindful."

Indeed, mindfulness has been key to Obama in the last few years amid the pandemic, racial injustice and Jan. 6th insurrection, all of which she says have taught her important lessons about kindness and self-love.

"These days I try to practice being kind," she said. "I try it because it is a practice, especially as women. There are societal signals all around us telling us that there is something wrong with some part of us. We're supposed to age gracefully. We're supposed to be the same shape that we were when we were in our 20s after giving birth to two, three kids. That we're not supposed to go gray. Our face isn't supposed to wrinkle. I mean, it's not in our heads. These messages are coming in. They've been coming in our whole lives. So the notion that we aren't affected by it and that I am not affected by it, that's laughable. I absolutely am."

It's why getting to self-kindness is still an uphill journey.

"I thought about, what are the messages that I'm giving myself every day, and how do I reverse that trend?" she explained. "How do I light up for myself first? So today when I'm looking at the mirror, I still see what's wrong, but I try to push those thoughts out and say, 'Wow, you are healthy. Look at your skin. Look how happy you look, your smile.' I try to find the things about me that I love and start my day a little more kind. And that's just a small simple tool. It doesn't require a gym membership. It doesn't require anybody else."

But, as she writes in her book, per People, "I personally have plenty of mornings when I flip on the bathroom light, take one look, and desperately want to flip it off again."

Being kinder to the woman in the mirror is a daily practice, she explains.

"I get so many affirmations from my husband on a daily basis: ‘You’re beautiful. You’re great. You’re smart,’ but sometimes you block those out, right?" she said. "I mean, that’s the battle that I am living with. A man who loves me dearly, who thinks that the sun rises and sets [on me], and he is clear and vocal about that. I get that affirmation every day, but I have to be honest that sometimes that isn’t enough. Because in the end, the messages have to come from me. I have to believe it myself."

The biggest message she has for young people is simple: "You gotta do that work on your own. You gotta love yourself. You gotta practice that before you can believe it in other people when they tell you."

Part of overcoming self-doubt is also recognizing that it's OK to be afraid. That's something she learned while writing her new book, which is full of essays on how she's overcome life's biggest challenges.

"Yes, Michelle Obama struggles with fear," she said. "You're putting your most vulnerable thoughts on paper and it's about to go on bookshelves. My first reaction is, 'Why did you do this? People are going to judge it.'"

But, she adds, "that's the only way I know how to be … honest about myself first and trying to stay vulnerable. I think people learn not through edict, but through stories.

"Over the 58 years that I've lived, I can look back and I can say, 'This is how I deal with fear. These are the things I say to myself when I need to pick myself up. This is how I stay visible in a world that doesn't necessarily see a tall Black woman. This is how I stay armored up when I'm attacked.' The book is that offering."

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