Reporter's Notebook: The Michelle Obama Effect

It's striking to watch today's television coverage of last night's speech by Michelle Obama. It's not what the reporters are saying but what they're wearing. One thing clearly sticks out - a plethora of bare arms.

Female correspondents and anchors on ABC's "Good Morning America," on CNN, MSNBC and Fox are all sporting sleeveless dresses - barely a covered arm in sight.

The bare arm, of course, is Michelle Obama's signature look, and despite some early controversy, the style has crept out of the East Wing and onto Main Street.

"I think she has really redefined the standard of what is professional and what is acceptable, and we women get to enjoy more options," said Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, the Washington bureau chief for People magazine.

Westfall, who previously worked as White House correspondent for the Associated Press, has interviewed her share of first ladies, including Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. She laughs, thinking back to those encounters. "I have never seen their upper arms, let alone their bare feet."

When I got my start in television news some decades ago, blazers were the uniform of choice for women on the air.

Former ABC News correspondent Jackie Judd remembers one of the first live shots she did for "Good Morning America" back in 1987. It was a hot May morning, and she wore a demure "high neck" silk blouse with what were called "bell sleeves." Judd said the sleeves "covered her shoulder and a few inches down her arms." That apparently wasn't good enough. Immediately after she got off the air she got an angry call from a show executive, berating her. "What I had worn was inappropriate," Judd said she was told, "I shouldn't show so much skin."

For Judd, "It was blazers from that moment forward."

People magazine's Westfall believes Michelle Obama has "given permission to women to loosen up in the workplace." Westfall, who is in Charlotte, N.C., covering the Democratic Convention, said even she "now feels license to go sleeveless and without pantyhose for an interview with the president."

Michelle Obama is hardly the first first lady to influence fashion. Women rushed to copy the Jackie Kennedy look, and Nancy Reagan brought her own sense of high fashion to the White House. But Obama's clothing look is different, said Westfall. "It's an accessible fashion, if for no other reason that your average women can go to J. Crew or H&M or ASOS.com" for the same outfits.

But back to the first lady's arms for a minute. As Westfall noted, and others have as well, "they are impossibly perfect." It obviously takes work to get those biceps and triceps in shape. What is her secret?

ABC News' Mary Bruce, a digital journalist who covers the White House, told me, 'We know she likes to jump rope and use free weights, based on interviews she has done. She also does a mean push-up, as she demonstrated in person on 'Ellen.'" Women and fitness magazines have even offered tips on toning up to achieve Michelle Obama's perfect sleeveless look.

What happens, then, if Ann Romney is the next inhabitant of the White House? Will the sleeveless look for professional women become so last year? Westfall doesn't think so. "I don't know what [Ann Romney's] upper arms look like, but I wouldn't be shocked if we saw them." And even if we don't, Westfall said, "I don't think any of us is going back to covering up our shoulders again."

So if you'll excuse me please, I'm heading out to invest in a set of dumbbells.

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