Army Officer Who Pushed for 'Average-Looking Women' in PR Suspended Following Controversy

The U.S. military has a deadline: By January 1, 2016, it should have opened as many jobs as possible for women (and whatever jobs aren't open, it has to give an explanation for keeping closed.) So it's working on improving itself — it's updating the mental and physical requirements for thousands of combat jobs to make them equal for men and women, it's working on changing its policies so that more females have access to infantry, armor and elite commando positions. All good, important steps forward for a system in which females suffer more both during and after their service. But two days ago, the Army came under fire for an email exchange, reported by Politico, in which a female Army colonel suggested that photos of attractive women should be avoided in promotional materials — on Friday, it was announced that Col. Lynnette Arnhart had agreed to step aside "in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing work on gender integration in the Army."

In the email exchange, Arnhart — who was spearheading a group of analysts studying how to integrate women into the newly-permitted combat roles — recommended that the Army should use photos of “average-looking women” when presenting stories about female soldiers, saying that pictures of women who are too attractive would undermine integration efforts.

“In general, ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead,” Arnhart wrote controversially, adding:

"There is a general tendency to select nice looking women when we select a photo to go with an article (where the article does not reference a specific person). It might behoove us to select more average looking women for our comms strategy. For example, the attached article shows a pretty woman, wearing make-up while on deployed duty. Such photos undermine the rest of the message (and may even make people ask if breaking a nail is considered hazardous duty)."

“A valuable reminder from the TRADOC experts who are studying gender integration — when [public affairs officers] choose photos that glamorize women (such as in the attached article), we undermine our own efforts. Please use ‘real’ photos that are typical, not exceptional, ” responded Col. Christian Kubik, chief of public affairs for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, who has also been suspended.

The email exchange of course sparked immediate outrage, and the Army was quick to point out that Arnhart's stance was in no way the Army's own official position.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted angrily at the Army, and called the email exchange “backward” and “offensive.” She said Wednesday: “Integrating women into combat roles shouldn’t be treated as a cosmetic decision or a public relations exercise. It’s time for the Army to join the 21st century and recognize the untapped assets they have in women eager to fight for their country.”

It's easy to feel enraged by the Colonel's comments on personal level, but did they have any scientific base at all? Er, actually, not really. Studies have shown that wearing small amounts of makeup boosts attractiveness (duh), but also increases a woman’s perceived likability, her trustworthiness and, most pertinently, her competence. It's also been shown that women with more symmetrical — and therefore more attractive — faces are considered healthier, and body symmetry is linked to general intelligence. Overall, in fact, studies make it pretty clear that the more beautiful we find someone, the more intelligent and competent we think they are. So, clearly, Arnhart's comments were a little off the mark.

“I am a very competent soldier,” Cpl. Kristine Tejeda, who was pictured in the photo Arnhart referenced, told the Army Times. “Just because a female soldier is pretty doesn’t mean she’s incompetent. Whether a soldier is ugly or pretty or whatever, it definitely shouldn’t matter."

Continuing to highlight only the "exceptionally" attractive women in promotional materials is definitely problematic. For one thing, it creates an implicit connection between attractiveness and military success, which is not only wrong, it utterly undermines their achievements. It also of course sexualizes and objectifies female U.S. soldiers, who are already dealing with horrific rates of sexual assault (from October 2012 through June 2013 alone, the U.S. Department of Defense received over 3,500 reports of military sexual assault, nearly a 50 percent bump from the same timeframe during the year before).

"The intent was to help ensure that images depict professional female soldiers as they are," Kubik explained Friday. "And to ensure that they are recognized on their hard-earned achievements as members of the professional arms."

Arnhart didn't do female soldiers (or women in general) any favors by suggesting that beautiful women are seen as "having used their looks to get ahead" and would "make people ask if breaking a nail is considered hazardous duty." But she's probably right that the army should make an effort to depict a range of women in their ads, and shouldn't just choose pictures that glamorize females. To accurately portray the army, surely females of all physical descriptions should be part of the promotional material that gets more women to join — from the less conventionally attractive to the jaw-droppingly stunning. Why not? These are all women who enlisted. They're all soldiers. Who gives an eff what they look like, in the end.

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