The first African American president and the first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater have much more in common than their success. Both have risen to the pinnacle of institutions that have historically been led by whites. Both were raised by determined single mothers and born into multi-racial families. And both seek to use their unique positions of power to inspire a generation of kids who may not see a clear path forward toward success.
They have also come to appreciate each other from afar, prompting a rare meeting at the White House on Feb. 29, when they sat down with TIME’s Maya Rhodan for a unusually personal, 30-minute conversation about body image, raising daughters, empowering the young and fighting racial discrimination. “As the father of two daughters, one of the things I’m always looking for are strong women who are out there breaking barriers and doing great stuff,” Obama said after they sat down. “Misty’s a great example of that. Somebody who has entered a field that’s very competitive, where the assumption is that she may not belong.”
Copeland spoke frankly about her own struggles with her appearance, as she rose through the ranks. “I didn’t want to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit into the ballet. I wanted to be myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to wear makeup that made my nose look thinner.”
As a father, President Obama says that’s a message he hopes to relay to his two daughters, Sasha and Malia, every day. The pressure to look and dress a certain way, he says, is hard on women—particularly young black women.
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