My mother and grandmother were both veterans and I cannot imagine the struggles they went through. Being in the military sounds tough- more so than I think we in society give credit for- but being a woman adds even more difficulties within military culture as well. Our cultural understanding of military women assumes they are “tomboys” or more masculine than most women. Military women are expected to be focused on their jobs not their looks, and are not viewed as “beautiful” compared to women in magazines. Well, I beg to differ because any woman who puts her life on the line to defend her country is beautiful in my eyes. However, issues still exist in how we view beauty within strong women, specifically with women veterans. So organizers decided it was time for ladies to slip out of their combat boots and into some sequins with the first Ms. Veteran America: The Woman Beyond the Uniform beauty pageant in 2012.
Now, I am pretty skeptical when it comes to pageants. I feel like they quantify women’s worth through physical appearance under the guise of “interview questions” acting to justify choices, when in reality we all know they care more about bikinis than answers. But as I read more about the Ms. Veteran America pageant, I felt the women were less objectified and more empowered. Among the categories of prizes (besides overall winner), the women won awards for Resilience (veterans who overcame a personal challenge), Mother of the Year, She Means Business (female veteran entrepreneurs), and Above and Beyond (celebrating substantial military achievements). And that is only to name a few. Only one title focused on physical beauty, Best Dressed, which is at least a little better for judging physical beauty because it focuses on the fashion rather than body. All of the other awards were focused on service, motherhood, and empowerment as businesswomen or military leaders.
The women overall were judged in four categories: talent, eveningwear, interview and military history. This form of pageantry emphasizes women’s achievements, and not their beach body. It was also nice to see how when the 37 contestants were introduced there were no age, height, or weight requirements. The pageant truly just wanted to celebrate veteran women in all forms.
What I was most interested in reading about though was the 2012 winner Denyse Gordon. Gordon is an Air Force veteran and a fellow Virginian. She too was opposed to the idea of the pageant at first. She explains to NPR about how she got involved in the pageant.
“This email popped up, and it said, ‘Ms. Veteran America Pageant.’ And my nose kind of went up in the air because it’s — I’m in my boots, you know, I have my gun. I’m combat. But I said, hmm … why, not, you know? What could happen?”
She also realized what opportunities the position would give her to advance the causes she cared about for her fellow veteran women. Gordon is a survivor of military sexual assault. She explains she was harassed early in her career and then physically assaulted later on as well. Like many women though, she didn’t feel as if she could do anything about it. She explains, “If you tell, you get in trouble, and I didn’t want to feel the scrutiny that I felt at my first base [after the first assault], so there was no way I was telling. There was no way.” This is a sad, unsettling truth for female military personnel. The Washington Post reported this past May that “The Pentagon has just released a new report that shows sexual assaults in the military are up sharply, up to the rate of 70 per day. That translates into almost three rapes every hour, all day long, all night long, every twenty-four hours.”
3 rapes per day.
A majority of these cases aren’t reported either because of the victim blaming stigma within military culture. So Gordon’s mission has the first Ms. Veteran America is to raise awareness of this issue as well as assist women who have also experienced sexual abuse in the military. I think that is so admirable, and appreciate her focus on her fellow sisters and reforming a patriarchal system that has taken over the military. 290,000 women have been deployed to the Middle East since 2001 and face struggles of homelessness, PTSD, and lacking employment when they return. They do not also need to return with a lack of respect and the emotional trauma of sexual assault. Women work just as hard as men in the military and deserve just as much respect.
If you are interested in learning more about the issue of sexual assault in the military, check out the documentary The Invisible War or read imagineherstory’s thoughts on the film.