What's So Wrong With Wearing Heels and Makeup?

"You girls are too pretty to be in the military," was the backhanded compliment my friends and I would often receive. This always irritated me, and for good reason -- but, when I thought about it, I believed it. I wanted to be a female who was too pretty to be a Naval officer. I wanted to wear my favorite Club Monaco pencil skirt instead of the high-waisted, polyblend pants that made my hips expand and my butt flatten.

But I couldn't. For some reason, I had to admit, when I put on that unflattering uniform and forfeited my feminine fashion, I became more competent as a Naval officer. Still, the worst part of all this is that even though we give up our femininity as soon as we lace up those wretched combat boots, we still haven't achieved equality -- in the military or the civilian world. (Especially since women still aren't allowed in special operations units, including the Navy SEALs.)

Consider: A friend of mine is a Marine Corps officer. She was a cross-country runner during college and a math major to boot. She's the epitome of a strong, capable woman and what the Marine Corps looks for in its officers. But they are going to be losing her as soon as she can get out. "I just want a job where I can wear makeup and high heels everyday!" she told me. Not exactly a scene from "G.I. Jane," is it?

However, it is a symptom of what's wrong with attitudes toward what is feminine. What's so wrong with high heels and makeup? Putting yourself together attractively is an exhibition of your self-respect and confidence. When she expresses her desire to do just that, she's scoffed at. And yet she can do the job just as capably as her counterparts who don't don threads that look like something out of InStyle.

Honestly, I wouldn't complain about this if women were treated somewhat equally, even with their sacrifices. I know it's bound to be harder to be a woman in male-dominated areas like the military. However, the suppression of feminine qualities isn't getting us equal treatment either. I have another friend, for instance, who is in pilot's training and is forced to work harder, longer, and better than the boys. Male pilots even say to her, "it's only because you're a girl," when they all check the schedule and see her name appear twice as often as theirs (to push her at a pace where she she'll be more likely to fail). I know she's strong enough to handle the torment, but it still infuriates me.

A recent New York Times Magazine article, "The Women's War," reported the much higher incidence of sexual assault of females in the military and exposure to trauma. Despite the fact that women now make up 15 percent of the ranks worldwide, the deep-seeded problems in these organizations have changed little. Embracing our penchant for Charles David wedges isn't going to change such disturbing systemic problems, of course -- but the failure of even female military types to accept girlier qualities does say something about why it's so difficult to change the testosterone-fueled culture.

I didn't want to believe that these problems still existed in the military. Those of us who serve want to become a part of an organization that is supposed to be greater and better than we ever could be as individuals, and in some ways it still fulfills that role. But the military is falling disgustingly short in gender equality. We can't change being females, nor can even the butchest girl hide that she is a woman. Gender is an issue. Ignoring it is stupid, and the attitude of "we are all the same" has reached its pinnacle. It still hasn't penetrated all of the prejudices.

So I like a little blush on my cheeks and a little heel in my soles. Those are personal choices that don't make me incompetent. Now that I'm out of the military, my fits of fashion are even more sacred. I relish getting up in the morning for work and being able to decide between my Chloe boots or my Marc Jacob pumps. I don't dress inappropriately or in any way unprofessionally, but I dress like a woman, an attractive one. Why does that still translate to me being silly?

In uniform with my hair in a bun, pants up to my neck and a collar choking me, I felt imprisoned. I could be strong, but not attractive (why can't we be both?). I would never be viewed as normal like my sorority sister walking down the hall in civilian clothes next to me. I knew it was a condition of my service, and my solution isn't changing the military uniform (though it could seriously use an update). We should instead amend how we view femininity. In everyday life women are pressured to keep up with the celebrity Joneses who flaunt their womanly wiles in often-gratuitous ways. But a woman in the military can expect a more difficult experience if she so much coats her toenails with polish.

So the next time you see a girl walking down the street in Rock & Republic jeans and Miu Miu wedges, don't judge her so quickly as a frivolous girl who just spends hours poring over magazines. She may be that girl, but she may also have spent an equal amount of time convoying across the desert in a flak jacket with an M-16, all the more grateful for her chance to show off her curves and her pedicure because of it.

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