Quick hit: Anu Bhagwati on the military and Miss America

At the MAKERS blog yesterday, friend of the site and no-joke total badass Anu Bhagwati, President of the Service Women’s Action Network, had a few things to say about Sgt. Theresa Vail, who represented the great state of Colorado in last weekend’s Miss America pageant. Bhagwati questions the media coverage of Vail and notes that it sure would be nice to get some media coverage of women in the military that isn’t directly related to bikinis and tattoos:

I don’t blame or resent Sgt. Vail for participating—I actually admire her talent and drive. And I don’t hold her even remotely responsible for either reforming the beauty pageant industry or for representing all military women everywhere. But I disagree with her that being Miss America and being a soldier are “one and the same”—you are not likely to get shot wearing the Miss America crown, and the average service member sacrifices a hell of a lot of comfort and privilege, unlike a crowned beauty queen.

Most of all, I am disappointed and indignant that the most national attention service women got this month (during a time of war, no less) was when the National Guardsman bared her skin in a red bikini and platform heels on prime time television. And that is entirely the fault of a sexist industry and the narrow-minded society that gives rise to it. Because to feature the sacrifices of women, women who have literally fought and died for this country, women who have accomplished great feats of leadership while in uniform might too provocatively subvert the gender status quo as we know it.

I’m reminded of a high profile event I reluctantly attended at New York City’s Fashion Week a couple years ago called, “Fatigues to Fabulous.” It was organized by several groups to, presumably, help women veterans and supported by several high profile fashion designers. The implication (and an actual suggestion) that what women veterans needed most when returning from war was to look “beautiful” still makes my stomach turn. If lipstick, stiletto heels and a $5000 dress could heal posttraumatic stress, they would definitely be onto something.

I discussed Sgt. Vail’s participation in the pageant with my fellow staff members at SWAN, women who have worn the uniform, deployed overseas and commanded troops. There was a palpable sense among us that we know what it’s like to be judged by our looks, to have our bodies scrutinized, to have to command mostly male troops within a climate of harassment and discrimination. At the end of the day, baring tattoos as a form of self-expression doesn’t erase the fact that Vail had to wear a bikini to express herself or that in the eyes of national media, a woman warrior is defined more by her looks when she’s undressed than by what she can do in uniform.

You can read the whole thing here. And if you’re in a giving mood this Friday and you want to support an organization that helps women in the military grapple with the sexual violence they’ve experienced while serving their country, you can do that here.

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