"This is great – you can help counteract the stereotype that only big bull dykes join the Army just by being there," the recruiter said (yes, really).
That was one of my first introductions to how much my appearance would constantly be noticed – and openly discussed by others – as a female soldier. I had signed up to do Hometown Recruiting (between initial entry training and going to your first permanent duty station, you can spend a week helping local recruiters out for a few hours every day without getting charged leave, while still having your evenings free). Instead of going back to my hometown, I'd decided to visit a friend in New York City, and the station I was assigned to apparently thought my key asset was not looking the way they apparently assumed lesbians look.
Later in my military career, people regularly told me, "You're really pretty for being in the Army." This baffling pseudo-compliment made me uncomfortable, and I developed a joking stock response: "What, all the pretty girls join the Air Force?" … while at the same time wondering if what they meant was that as civilians go, I'm ugly. It was further confirmation that at least initially, my appearance was a key part of how people would form opinions of me as a soldier.
Recently, an internal email from the female officer heading an Army study on how to integrate women into previously closed ground combat jobs and units to the public affairs office was leaked and much of it published by Politico. In it, she urged that public affairs personnel choose photos of "average looking women" to illustrate generic stories. I'm not thrilled with all her word choices, but I'm worried that her core message has been obscured by quibbles over terminology and the relish media outlets and pundits take in trying to turn everything into a major story. If she had wrapped her message in more obfuscating language – perhaps saying women who do not seem to be trying to conform to modern beauty norms by use of appearance-enhancing efforts instead of the shorthand pretty, maybe it wouldn't have led to the same degree of public outcry. (I also empathize with her on a personal level: I'm not careful in how I phrase messages that are not meant to be public and certainly wouldn't want some of them leaked!)
The heart of her argument fell much farther down in the story: compared to photos where women troops are obviously wearing makeup, photos of female soldiers with mud on their faces "sends a much different message—one of women willing to do the dirty work necessary in order to get the job done."
This immediately resonated with me based on my own experiences. While I was deployed to Iraq, I got a few days of R&R in Qatar. While there, I went shopping, bought makeup, got a massage, and drank a few (carefully rationed!) beers. Upon my return to Mosul, Bruce Willis and his band (who knew?) came to our FOB on a USO tour. On a whim, I wore the mascara from my R&R – it had been nice to feel feminine for a few days.
Guys asked me about it for weeks. All the male soldiers in my unit noticed I'd worn makeup. They commented on it. It changed how they looked at me and thought about me. And they all knew me, had known me for months or years already.
OK, I purposefully chose extreme examples. It's not always that cut-and-dry. When my friends and I were discussing this story on social media, we argued about whether or not women in various photos were wearing makeup (yes, really). It isn't always easy to tell, and for many women, makeup is a fraught issue. I know women who will never be seen without makeup. While I was in Advanced Individual Training at Goodfellow Air Force, one of my suitemates got up an hour before we had to do physical fitness training to put on full makeup. Full makeup – to go run for miles – in the heat of a Texas summer. I couldn't wrap my mind around it. (Recently reading this piece on indirect aggression among young women made me think hard about my negative reaction and wonder if I'd react the same way now that I'm a decade older…)
Part of the kerfuffle about this, to me, comes down to the problems of real versus ideal.
In my ideal world, the way I look is meaningless, whether I wear makeup doesn't matter – I'll be judged on how competent I am. But in the real world, I have to be aware of the fact that (in normal settings) wearing makeup "increases people's perceptions of a woman's likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness." So I've worn makeup to every job interview I've ever gone on. Once I've gotten the jobs, there have days I skipped wearing makeup to the office – I can work toward making my ideal world a reality by demonstrating to my colleagues that my appearance and competence aren't connected. But the important days, when I wanted to make a good first impression? I lived in the real world.
In my ideal world, the way people dress is unimportant. But in the real world, I wore a suit on my last job interview, too – and so did my husband, because this isn't just about gender. (Although apparently if either of us had applied to work in the tech world, it may have benefitted us NOT to wear suits.) You meet the social norms of the world you want to inhabit, and then you can work to change it from the inside. But if you thumb your nose too heavily at the mores of the organization you want to join, you risk not getting that opportunity.
Almost all of my women veteran friends who posted about this story on social media seemed (to me) angry that the ideal world hasn't yet materialized, pissed off that people think about women's appearances at all, irritated that men in the military might let something as trivial as eyeliner distract from the far more important question of whether or not a woman soldier can accomplish the mission effectively. I get that.
But several of the male troops and vets that I know said they got COL Arnhart's point and agreed with the core message on at least some level (while agreeing the wording was suboptimal). I imagine part of this is that they aren't triggered in the same way by words like "pretty" and "ugly," which can be tremendously emotionally charged for women – and that may give them the space to more clearly acknowledge the real world we still inhabit. (Although one of them less charitably posited, "When we see a picture featuring an attractive female soldier, it undermines the message mostly because we're all very immature.")
All signs currently indicate that the Army will be opening ground combat arms jobs to women (I'm not as sure about the Marines). This is a tremendous step forward for both women and the Army. COL Arnhart, who has since stepped down, was – in my take of the situation – urging a couple of colleagues to be mindful of the real world we still inhabit while setting the stage for those women, in order to slightly diminish the obstacles that will be awaiting them. Those women, by demonstrating their competence, strength, and abilities, will help accomplish the mission, regardless of how they look – and that will help drag the ideal world once step closer to reality.
Kayla Williams is an Army war vet and author of "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army." This article originally appeared on her website.