Are ugly women better warriors?

On 22 October 2011, Army 1st Lt. Ashley White was sent in to search and interview Afghan women. She and three of her fellow soldiers in a special operations force were killed by an improvised bomb. White was – according to LA Times – the first female US soldier to die in combat  in that theatre, as part of an elite cultural support team.  I do not recall anybody questioning whether she was using lipstick…

Last week a US Col. Christian Kubik, chief of public affairs for the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command was fired after the press disclosed an e-mail he had readdressed to his PA community. This email had been originated by Col. Lynette Arnhart, who was leading a team of analysts studying how best to integrate women into combat roles. In her intention, she was providing  guidance to Army spokesmen and spokeswomen about how they should tell the press and public about the Army’s integration of women.

What was in her advice that prompted Politico to make it a big news story? In a nutshell, she recommended that the Army should use photos of “average-looking women” when it needs to illustrate stories about female soldiers, as images of women who are too pretty undermine the communications strategy about introducing them into combat roles.

“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.

Based on this opinion, Col. Kubik added in his cover 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.”

It is not clear who took the initiative to disclose the email to the press and why.   What really matters is the reaction it generated. A flurry of stories in the US press mainly focusing on the appearance of the female soldier mentioned as an example. The now called ‘pretty soldier’ is Cpl. Kristine Tejeda, who was deployed to Iraq when the photo was taken in 2011. Stories went deep into what kind of makeup or lipstick she was using, and on whether the photo had been improved with Photoshop.


Here is a comment in the  blog Military Times: “In the original photo, the soldier’s lips are a neutral shade, while in the photo used in the magazine, the female soldier seems to have brighter pink lipstick. “

And here is one of the harsh comments from readers to the same story :

Colonel Arnhart is making the transition harder for women to move to combat arms. With a female saying that “ugly” women are perceived more competent than “pretty” women leads to more trouble. These statements put women in the military at a higher risk. The women, who are left in garrison, are being setup to be sexually harassed and raped. The women who are allowed to join combat arms are being told that they are not pretty enough, and will lead to higher suicide rates. Both of these situations lead to failure of the mission. I would like to think, that I am judged by my competency and not by how well I attract men. My recruiter told me when I joined that “Women are only allowed in the army to boost morale for the men.” Is the army ready to let go of these fifties ideals?

But there were also comments like:

Do your looks have anything to do w/ ur competence? Every other magazine in America uses a glorified/ prettier version of the average. It makes sense that they did this. I personally am not offended nor do I feel it hinders our sex. America’s version of a male soldier is Tom Cruise.

 And even:

Please run a photo of Col. Lynette Arnhart as well. If she’s ugly we’ll take her seriously.
If she’s really hideous, then we need to get all over this issue and adopt an Army Regulation. If the colonel is attractive, then we can disregard her comment, right?

Here is the photo. You draw your own conclusion.


Even political figures did not mis this opportunity to draw  consensus: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called the email “backward” and “offensive” and said it offers an insight into how the military still perceives women.

A few days ago Col. Arnhart stepped down from her position, and Col. Kubik was suspended pending the outcome of an investigation.

The press coverage should have better focused on ethical considerations. There is an expert stating that it is unethical or inefficient to use images of non-average looking women in the Army’s PR campaign. And a senior PA expert endorsing this view in an internal document.  The drawn conclusion was that both offended gender equality sensitivity.

It is a fact that in the world of advertising, men and women have consistently been portrayed in stereotypical ways. Thanks to G.I. Jane,”women in the military are expected to look like Demi Moore. While the woman  stereoptype in the publcity field is definitely not the average looking woman. According to Callen Gustafson  of the University of South Carolina “ Because men have an increased liking and are more responsive to sexual content, most sexually based advertising targets them. Using attractive women in ads results in higher visual recognition and recall as well as enhances ad-like, product-like, and purchase intent for men.” 

It is therefore somehow ‘natural’ that even the military use sexual appeal in the promotional images.  I do not recall a single campaign to boost recruitments with pictures of ugly men or women.  In Italy, the public TV networks use Air Force meteorologists to announce weather forecast:  guess how they look like…

So, is it ethical to use non-average images to achieve promotional aims?  If you look at the Ethics Codes of main PR organizations (i.e. the Public Relations Society of America) you find nothing about this aspect. But this case refers to a government organization and ethics of advertising are irrelevant if compared to the ethics of public administration authorities. For them it is of paramount importance also to remember that ethics is also “concerned with developing virtuous persons and civic-minded citizens” (Ethics in a Nutshell).

My conclusion is that everybody is wrong. Col. Kubik, even if he was in bona fide while expressing his candid endorsement, should have been aware of the implied risk of damage to the Army, should his email be forwarded outside. He should have been gender-sensitive enough to use a different language.   Many of those who reported the story seemed to ignore the reality we live in. No matter if gender equality is a recognized human right. We are all treated as ‘consumers’ rather than citizens and the information world still reflects almost unchangeable stereotypes.

It is however true that at least from government officials we expect better.

I somehow agree with Shawn Paul Wood  when he states  about Col. Arnhart: “After all, she has lived female perception in the military in a way people in this industry can only fathom from watching movies. That said, she really does have an understanding about how to reach the heart of women for military service and sacrifice. However, is that on exhibit here? It can also be argued that Col. Arnhart is not talking to “those women” who prefer a Louis Vutton satchel over a camo backpack…  I would like to add that looks shouldn’t matter, but in the world of advertising, it always does. How we choose to look at this particular “comms strategy” is another story — the good, the bad and the ugly.”

What was missing in this debate is the role played by women within  the US armed forces. According to the Los Angeles Times,  the first three women to complete Marine infantry training  graduated Thursday as ‘ national symbols of the growing push to integrate women into front-line combat units — and potent reminders of the barriers that remain… But unlike their male counterparts who graduated Thursday, the women will not be assigned to infantry units. They will be placed in staff and support jobs while the Pentagon continues to to study how many of the thousands of combat-related jobs now reserved for men should be opened to both sexes. That process could last two more years or longer in some branches of the armed forces, despite an announcement by the Pentagon in January that it was lifting the ban.

© Franco Veltri


About fveltri

Former NATO and military spokesperson, currently Public Affairs consultant and President, ComIPI (
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3 Responses to Are ugly women better warriors?

  1. fveltri says:

    Interesting follow-up confirming facts as previously reported, with no comment or explanation from the Army spokesperson:

    Army makes staff changes after email about women (Associated Press):

    Pentagon officials said Friday that an Army colonel who wrote an internal email suggesting photos of attractive women should be avoided in promotional materials has stepped down from her duties involving a gender study. Army spokesman George Wright said Col. Lynnette Arnhart had agreed to step aside, and Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command
    at Fort Eustis, Va., had accepted the gender integration study’s leadership change “in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing work on gender integration in the Army.”
    The content of the email was first reported by Politico this week. In the email, Arnhart stated that “average-looking women” should be used in Army materials used to attract women for combat
    roles, Politico reported. In addition, Wright said that Col. Christian Kubik, a public affairs officer also with the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, was suspended for his involvement in the email pending an investigation.
    According to the email chain obtained by Politico, Kubik forwarded Arnhart’s email to other public affairs officers, cautioning the use of photos “that glamourize women” would undermine the Army’s gender integration efforts. Wright confirmed that the email existed but didn’t provide copies to The Associated Press. Messages seeking comment from Arnhart, who worked at the Training and Doctrine Command’s analysis center at Fort Leavenworth, and Kubik about the staff changes weren’t immediately returned.
    Theresa Vail, a Kansas Army National Guard soldier who is also the reigning Miss Kansas, was critical of the email, saying Arnhart’s comments reflected entrenched stereotypes that attractive women aren’t competent enough to serve in combat or other military roles. “It’s the sad truth. It’s
    the unfortunate reality,” Vail said Friday. “From what I’ve been getting, women are outraged.” The military is trying to figure out how to implement policy changes to move women into battlefront jobs, including infantry, armor and elite commando positions. Updated physical and mental standards
    that are equal for men and women are being devised for thousands of combat jobs.
    The military has until Jan. 1, 2016, to open as many jobs as possible to women and explain why if they decide to keep some closed.

  2. Tiffany says:

    Talk about fact check. How about you check your statement about Army 1st Lt. Ashley White. She was not the first woman to die in combat in Afghanistan. I should know I actually deployed there myself two times. We lost women before this I know I lost a female LT in 2005 from an IED. So please and yes I think the colonel’s quotes were taken out of context, but as female journalist who spent 9 yrs and 11 months in the Army with three deployments she is just speaking what we as most military females think and males. Let me promise if I had worn makeup out on combat patrols I would have been laughed and left behind on a COP or FOB. Sorry but its BS that the Army decides to play into the mainstream only pretty woman should be used in advertising. You have photo journalist and broadcasters in all branches of the military and thousands of video and images to use of real Soldiers(Airmen, Marines, etc.) doing their jobs use those not some poised crap from trianing.

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