About Face: Military Service and Miss America

About Face: Military Service and Miss America

By Anu Bhagwati

Sep 19, 2013

I fully admit it—I’m steeped in judgment about beauty pageants as an industry, and I still wrestle with assumptions about the women and girls who participate in them. Almost all I can stomach on the topic is Miss Congeniality, in which Sandra Bullock plays a gung-ho FBI agent who goes undercover as Miss New Jersey at a national pageant and is forced to endure all of the industry’s sexist humiliations to pass as “gorgeous”—mandatory starvation, bikini waxing, high heels and all. Her resistance to the industry and her tough-guy attitude make the subject matter not only palatable but also even therapeutic.

Before you judge, let me share the negative impact the so-called “beauty industry” has had on me and almost every girl and woman I know—hours upon hours, spent week after week, for years on end, obsession with self-hatred, guilt or shame for how we look, what we do or do not eat, and how we must dress, speak and act in order to earn our family’s and society’s acceptance, and power and influence in the world. Miss America plays a role in shaping these powerfully defeating narratives in the lives of women and girls across the nation.

However, by the look of it, the face of national pageantry, if not the substance, is changing in apparently new and exciting ways. Plenty of attention has been a paid to the winner, Nina Davuluri, but I’m just as interested in Sergeant Theresa Vail, otherwise known as Miss Kansas, who made media waves as the first contestant ever to bare her tattoos. It’s not the first time a military woman has entered the pageant –Sergeant Jill Stevens, a combat medic, competed in 2008—and it certainly won’t be the last. But the media obsession with the “Serenity Prayer” tattooed around Vail’s midriff is less about women expressing themselves in authentic and edgy ways than it is about varying the same old theme on objectifying women’s bodies.

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.


// MAKER Anu Bhagwati is the Executive Director for the Service Women’s Action Network, an organization that supports, defends and empowers servicewomen and women veterans. Bhagwati was a former Captain and Company Commander in the Marine Corps, serving as a Marine officer from 1999-2004. //

Photo: Getty Images

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