Should Ponytails and French Manicures Be Banned in the Army?

The Army wants to spiff up its dress code - fair enough. But why, in 2011, should showing your femininity be viewed as a sign of weakness?

Last month, Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler announced via Facebook that revisions are in the works for Army Regulation 670-1 (PDF), which details requirements for the "Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia."

No official dress code changes have been made because Chandler wanted to hear from the troops first: "Give me your thoughts on earrings for females in ACUs, or if French-tipped fingernails should be allowed. What about tattoos?" And boy, has he been getting their thoughts -- more than 500 soldiers have joined the discussion so far, which has now expanded to whether ponytails should be verboten, reports BellaSugar.

On the face of it, you're probably thinking, it's the Army, uniforms are kind of the deal. The Army wants soldiers to look "professional," as Chandler put it, which might rule out your average face tattoo or sleeve. And dangly earrings and long nails are impractical for many civilian jobs, to say nothing of the combat positions that women may, at long last, soon be able to hold.

But what about stud earrings, short nails painted a neutral color or a ponytail? They wouldn't interfere with any physical activities. But when I started reading the Facebook comments from soldiers to get a sense of how the dress code gets interpreted out on the field, I realized: It's not necessarily about function. Many soldiers interpret anything girly, no matter how professional or practical, as a sign of weakness.

One female respondent wrote: “We knew what we were sacrificing when we joined. This is the United States Army, and there is no time for ‘pretty’ here. I am a female NCO and while I embrace my womanhood, the bottom line upfront is that ponytails, French manicures, earrings, etc., will not enhance my ability to train and lead soldiers. In fact I believe it will negatively alter their view of me as a strong leader. Please don’t empower me as a female, empower me as an NCO.”

And the Army Times reports: "Gen. Ann Dunwoody, AMC’s commander and the military’s first female four star, echoed that sentiment. 'I would vote no.'"

I'm not saying that every female soldier should want to wear earrings and nail polish. I'm not a soldier and I rarely wear earrings and nail polish. These things don't define you as a woman -- but they are undeniable symbols of femininity in our culture. So what does it mean when the strongest woman in the US military agrees that displaying overt signs of femininity might impact a female officer's perceived strength as a leader? 

It means that we still equate strength with masculinity and assume that women are naturally weak and emotional -- as Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla and Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Money Fund, explain in this Forbes story about the stereotypes they face as powerful women. Just as businesswomen had to don guy-inspired power suits and floppy bowties in the 1970s and 1980s to compete in the boardroom, the women serving in our military today must literally put on a man's uniform to do their jobs.

The soldier quoted above would rather be empowered as an NCO than as a female. But why, in 2011, is it okay that she still feels like she has to make that choice? 


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