Sweaty Concepts: On Being a Woman in the U.S. Army
When I was 25, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. During basic training, I wrote “It is a privilege to be oneself” in my journal. I scribbled those words under incredible physical and emotional distress, stripped of all indicators and standards of selfhood. Face-down in the muddy soil of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I decided to kill myself. Interestingly, it was another woman — my female drill sergeant — who contributed to my decision that death was preferable to failure.
Her verbal abuse for my lack of manliness made me hate my attempt to be both female and a soldier. She told me my crying made all women look bad. She told me I was not cut out to be a soldier as I sweated under the Midwestern sun in the front-leaning rest position of ultimate submission. I couldn’t be GI Jane — who, for her total assimilation, might as well have been called GI Joe.
I half-heartedly jabbed at the mannequins with my bayonet and laughed. I wasn’t really interested in killing anyone except myself (and for a brief period, my tormentor). But the seed of self-hatred, this desire for self-annihilation had been sown long before I entered the hypermasculine environment of the military. My preference for the masculine form went way back to adolescence and beyond. It was not just a love and appreciation for all things “manly,” but denial and hatred of all things feminine. I couldn’t stand being me as a woman. I was not at home in the world in this female body. I disassociated from it and looked outward to masculine ideals of power and control. Bingeing and purging, dieting and drinking. I did what I could to escape from or change the female figure I had inherited, with its feminine aspects and womanly elements — soft, sweaty, bloody. Undesirable.
Although I physically survived my stint in the armed forces, my mental health was “touch and go” throughout my three-and-a-half-year enlistment. I was certainly touched: by men, superiors, inferiors, so many doctors, and fellow soldiers. I was finally discharged for medical injuries accumulated in training, like so many badges of dishonor requiring several boxes of records to contain them all. By the time I shed my Army Combat Uniform for the last time and hightailed it out of Fort Hood, Texas, on a spring day in 2007, I didn’t know who I was.
One of my first acts of self-determination and defiant rule-breaking was to pierce my nose. But the hole would not heal even after a year, reflecting my lack of will to live, either in or outside the military. Without the structure of the uniform to hold the space where my even more fragile sense of self might have been, the vacuum was unavoidable. I filled it with more alcohol and continued to desperately grasp for power and validation. I went to grad school. I wore suits. I became an analyst, then a manager. I was important!
I didn’t know it wasn’t power I should seek, but my self — and thus, my own voice, one that I had thus far learned did not count.
When I was in training at the Defense Language Institute in 2005, one of the first female Iraq war memoirs, Love My Rifle More Than You, was published by Kayla Williams. The book caused a stir, as my platoon sergeant and several others in our unit had been deployed with Williams in Iraq. When I asked him about it, he dismissed it out of hand: “Oh, she just wants attention.”
Who cares about the female perspective in a war zone? Or anywhere else, for that matter? That was the end of that. I kept reading the never-ending stream of memoirs and books by male authors.
I most certainly did not feel at home in the military. But it was also my own body that was the battleground for this struggle to find a home.
Later, while assigned to the rear detachment at Ft. Hood — my unit having deployed to Iraq for the troop surge — my once best friend turned on me after becoming my squad leader. She harassed me during my brief pregnancy until I referred myself to the emergency mental health center for suicidal thoughts. She had wanted to get pregnant, too — before her husband was whisked off to the war, along with mine. She joked about kicking me in the stomach if I didn’t do her bidding, and when I miscarried (without any kicks), she threatened to report me AWOL while I was on recovery.
In the military back then, women were not friends with other women for long.
It wasn’t until I was 40 years old that I read my first book by feminist author Sarah Ahmed and was reminded that it was indeed my right — all along — to be myself and to be so in this female body. In Living a Feminist Life, she defines a “sweaty concept” as “one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world.” I most certainly did not feel at home in the military. But it was also my own body that was the battleground for this struggle to find a home.
Ahmed describes feminism as a process of finding another way to live in your body, of not withdrawing in anticipation of violence. I had been surrounded by violence for years while withdrawing from it. I would jump at the slightest sign of a raised hand or voice, of a car backfiring. I had internalized the voices, the epithets, the calls of being “a pussy” so deeply that there was a long road ahead to root out those weeds. The voices that told me if I couldn’t be like a man, I was worthless. Being a woman had limited value, one that always seemed related to my sexual attractiveness. These voices had grown as thick as vines, strangling any chance I had at peace, much less happiness.
I still know what ideals I sought to actualize by joining the Army. I wanted to nobly serve a purpose higher than myself: to become a strong, powerful, and hardened warrior. But my visions of a band of brothers sacrificing themselves to save a fallen comrade simply didn’t include women — myself or others. And all around me, I heard these views and had them reflected back to me in how I was treated. It is proper and right that young people have lofty ideals, but what images do we associate with them? And where do they come from, to begin with? I had assumed mine from the dominant, male perspective. Hollywood action films, “Be All You Can Be” — all of it had made its way deep down into my psyche.
It has taken me more than 30 years to gradually permeate my body and all its discontents with my full Self; to create one unit. I have not always managed the arduous task of weeding the path that leads to self-acceptance smoothly, nor with grace. One small stop along the way was the emergence of the big-butt craze on social media. Finally, the female form was being celebrated in its aspects that were less male and more… well, female. Overlooking the superficiality and commercial exploitation for a moment, it was a key step to have my ideal of the male body be gradually replaced by viewing so many images of women with large rear ends. Happy women. Beautiful women. I needed to see and hear these women cheering each other on. “You go girl!” they would write under photos as they proudly preened, touting and displaying their bodies. Each comment replaced the voices of the past, where being called puny, girly, pussy was something demeaning. With every image, I came a few steps closer to healing and loving my own body.
When I moved to Berlin at 38, I discovered a sex-positive and body-positive culture that thrives in the alternative scenes. It is a culture in which every type of body is autonomous, valued, and respected. This was more welcome news to me. It took me a step further from my struggle to accept what is feminine — and feminine in myself — to more consciously value all variations of humanity: hard, soft, big, small, fat, thin, masculine, feminine, and every other kind there is.
As I slowly reach a small level of self-acceptance, I’m reminded that beginning, again and again, is a necessary part of any path toward change. I must commit anew to the process. Some days I still hear the voice of my drill sergeant, or platoon sergeant, or an ex-boyfriend telling me that my voice doesn’t matter, that my views are not valid. That only my body and its current material manifestation matters. And I have to start all over again.
My voice can only ring free and true when I also listen to other women’s voices.
I met Kayla Williams in person at the 2020 Association of Writing Programs Conference in San Antonio, where she was speaking on two panels about the female experience in the military. It was a joy to see women owning their brilliance — and their shadows — while stepping out from under the yoke of the male perspective. As I heard my own experiences echoed back to me by the panelists and audience members, I felt like I’d entered a support group meeting I didn’t know I needed. And I found myself sweating nervously like a starstruck fan when I introduced myself to Kayla and told her my story. She was gracious, funny, and encouraging.
I am ashamed that I so quickly dismissed the voices of my fellow female soldiers, and so easily assumed the position of their lack of validity held by our male superiors. That was what I had learned by example. I suffered continuously from the entrenched culture of silencing female voices, as do all women. The power of the patriarchy certainly lies in its being internalized by women like myself. It is finally changing in the military, and in the world. This is very exciting — because my voice can only ring free and true when I also listen to other women’s voices.
I don’t want to stop loving and admiring men. But I can do so without wanting to be one, and without hating women. I know that loving and supporting women, starting with myself, is where redemption lies. Over the years, I have learned from a few mentors that this loving-of-women (including myself) is an activity — a conscious act of will. It is the summary of many small actions and not something accomplished by fiat or intellect alone. They have shown me and continue to demonstrate that to be an amazing, successful woman is not a zero-sum game.
It is the inner voice of criticism that must be starved, not our bodies. That critical voice is an invasive species that sucks up the nutrients intended for our true work as women in the world. There is room for all of us, and we must focus on celebrating each other’s accomplishments and speaking the good truth about ourselves and each other.