The Army Wants Pictures of ‘Average-Looking Women’

Matt Yglesias flags a Politico article on internal Army PR guidance to submit pictures of “average-looking” women servicemembers instead of “pretty” ones in articles on military gender issues:

“In general, ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead,” wrote Col. Lynette Arnhart, who is leading a team of analysts studying how best to integrate women into combat roles that have previously been closed off to them. She sent her message to give guidance to Army spokesmen and spokeswomen about how they should tell the press and public about the Army’s integration of women.

“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),” Arnhart said.

…Col. Christian Kubik, chief of public affairs for the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command…forwarded the email to all public affairs officers supporting TRADOC with the note: “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.”

Critics pounced:

After POLITICO first reported on the e-mail in Tuesday’s Morning Defense, critics seized upon Arnhart’s guidance as proof that today’s Army culture has a long way to go before women will be treated as equals.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) tweeted that it was “another example that @USArmy just doesn’t get it as it debates if pretty girls should be used in pamphlets.”

One Army source said, “It scares me to think that these are people involved in gender integration.”

I worry that the forest may be missed for the trees as this story picks up steam.

On one hand, the idea underlying this guidance is sound. Since women’s sexual value is so highly emphasized in our culture, publishing a predominance of images that draw attention to sexual value undermines the important message that military standards can and should transcend gender boundaries.

On the other hand, describing some servicewomen as “pretty” just creates a descriptive division between servicemembers where none is necessary.

Rep. Speier’s remark seems a bit opportunistic. Without having read the entire PR guidance, I have to remind myself that the quoted passages are arguments of strategic logic, not subjective value.

If the Army is going to cease using pretty girls in their pamphlets, they’re going to have to somehow convey that order down to subordinate commands. It seems to me that, if anything, the controversy should be over the use of descriptive language. I’m not an expert on this sort of thing but language that strips physical attractiveness of its connotative value seems preferable. “Ugly” and “pretty” are charged terms.

In regard to the Colonel’s remark that the Army should use “real” photos of women servicemembers, my view is that “real” is a fair term as it relates to depictions of the field environment. Showing women in mascara in an ostensibly field setting is inaccurate and nonconstructive. However, “real” should not be used to describe an individual’s attractiveness. Pretty servicewomen are just as real as anybody else, so to convey otherwise is to spread the stereotype that they are less competent.

UPDATE: According to Battle Rattle, a Military Times blog, the photo that prompted this guidance was of a female soldier providing security for a tour of an ancient city in Iraq. So it would appear that some women do wear mascara in the field. Noted.

Cpl Tejeda

Credit: Pvt. Andrew Slovensky/US Army


  1. carolannie1949 says:

    Was she wearing mascara? Some people just have very black eyelashes, including men (note the many comments by women on men’s beautiful eyes). So this is pretty bogus on the whole

  2. I see a little too much black around the edges of her eyelids to chalk it up to dark eyelashes (and indeed the art of makeup is to convince people that you naturally look that way) but I suppose it’s not out of the realm of possibility.


  1. […] concern I voiced earlier is being realized. Colonel Arnhart’s words are quickly being twisted to make […]

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