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.”
By his own admission, President Obama didn’t realize how much social pressure women faced to look and act a certain way when he was younger. “When you’re a dad of two daughters, you notice more,” he said. “And that pressure I think is historically always been harder on African American women than just about any other women.”
Copeland, a member of the President’s advisory Council of Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, said she has embraced her role as a mentor for younger people, especially black women. “I feel like people are looking at me, and it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to provide opportunities,” Copeland said.
The conversation was both candid and revealing. Obama talked about his older daughter’s struggles with beauty standards, and how he tries to be a healthy model for both of his children. “The fact that they’ve got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful,” he said.
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.”
Both gave advice to the next generation for how to facedown and stand against racial discrimination. In conversations with his own children, Obama said he tells his daughters that though racial strife wasn’t eliminated when they moved into the White House, overcoming discrimination will make them empathetic. “What I say to my kids is use this as something that provides you a particular power to be willing to fight on behalf of what you think is right,” he said.
The president has acknowledged his failure to bridge the nation’s political divide as one of his biggest regrets, and he is aware that racial tensions have not markedly changed since he took office. But as he spoke with Copeland, he recognized that for some black and brown children, his presence in office has made a difference, much like a black woman with the confidence and curves performing grand jetes across the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.