Too Pretty for Combat?

December 1st, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

A leaked communication urges the Army to feature “average looking” women in recruiting assets.

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The Responsibility Project

A colonel who was consulting with the Army on public relations and strategic communications made an appallingly un-strategic move when she recommended that only pictures of “ugly” or “average-looking” women be used in Army promotional material.

Col. Lynette Arnhart was heading a gender integration study (and has since stepped down, reports The Guardian UK), when an email she wrote to two colleagues in public affairs was leaked to Politico. “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),” she said. “It might behoove us to select more average looking women for our comms strategy. “

She cited a photo used with an Army Magazine article by Gen. Robert W. Cone from 2002 about the Army’s effort to open up jobs to women. Arnhart believed that the general had failed to get his point across because the woman in the picture, Corporal Kristine Tejada, was too attractive and was wearing makeup while on deployed duty. “In general, ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead,” Arnhart wrote.

As Fox News reported, many people fired back after the email was leaked, including beauty queen Theresa Vail, a sergeant in the Army National Guard, who represented Kansas at this year’s Miss America pageant and made the top 10. “Unfortunately that is the sick reality and one of the many stereotypes I’m trying to break,” Vail tweeted. “However, it is going to take an army of women to break that perception, not just myself.”

PR nightmare, indeed, but the idea may actually have some merit, writes Slate assistant editor Katy Waldman. After all, “Studies do show that sexualized women are perceived as less human,” she writes. In one experiment, men who viewed images of scantily clad women had less activation in the brain region associated with social cognition on an MRI. In other words, “They were seeing the women as objects – and obviously, mindless bodies are deemed less competent than real, thinking people.”

More recent studies complicate the issue, she points out. A 2011 Hanover College study, for instance, determined that “moderately attractive” women are generally seen as more intelligent than women at either aesthetic extreme.

Was Col. Arnhart’s message irresponsible and completely off the mark, or might there be a little truth in the undoubtedly politically incorrect message?