The military is all about uniformity. Unfortunately for women this often means bland shapeless uniforms worn daily. Minimal makeup, hair in a bun, muted nail polish colors, and the inability to outwardly express feminism and individuality. But what goes on underneath the uniform? What role do lace, bras, and underwear play in empowering female service members?
What's hiding under that uniform?
As a young army wife teaching soldiers retiring from the Army how to transition to the civilian work place, I often felt that my sex was working against me. I’d put on a pants suit and stand with confidence, knowing that I was an expert in my field. I would tell myself that they wanted to learn the information I had and that they would respect me. I’d start my introduction talking about my experiences and my education. And I’d wear cute underwear. No one would ever see if, but it made me feel confident and feminine. Some days that was the combination that got me through a particularly rough teaching session.
Regulations and Uniformity
“Undergarments” are a required part of the composition of every Army uniform. In basic training, men are issued underwear, and women are allowed to pack or purchase basic, white panties. No boy shorts, no thongs, nothing of color. Boring, industrial, white panties.
There’s little to no room for individuality in basic training, and that includes underwear. Those weeks are spent becoming part of a bigger team. And, while it seems silly, there are several times that recruits are standing around in their underwear, so uniformity here is key. At the worst, you may be disciplined for not conforming, at the best, your peers will tease you regarding your choices.
After basic training, the restrictions on underwear relax drastically. The regulation still requires that it be worn, but no one goes around checking. Those very few times when a packing list is checked, either by the unit sending you to a school, or by the supervising authority upon your arrival, simply adding the correct ‘regulation’ underwear to the list is usually enough.
Army regulation 670-1 outlines the wear and appearance of uniforms, and includes the information regarding undergarments, hair and fingernail standards and makeup. The Air Force, Navy, and Maine Corps all have similar regulations to keep all service members looking uniform. Here are the main points from this regulation:
The requirement for hair grooming standards is necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population. Many hairstyles are acceptable, as long as they are neat and conservative.
Females are authorized to wear cosmetics with all uniforms, provided they are applied conservatively and in good taste and complement the uniform.
Females will not wear shades of lipstick and nail polish that distinctly contrast with their complexion, that detract from the uniform, or that are extreme.
Nothing trendy or exaggerated is accepted. Permanent makeup is accepted if it falls within the standard. Examples of extreme colors include: purple, gold, blue, black, white, birth red, khaki, camouflage colors, and fluorescent colors. Nail designs or multi-colors on nails are also not permitted.
One active duty Navy Sailor frequently paints her nails bright red on Friday afternoons and when on leave, so as not to break the rules, but still enjoy her nail polish choices.
Of course the standard of non-trendy and conservative often falls to the immediate leadership to decide. In a male dominated field this could mean a different threshold from one unit to another. For a male service member who is not familiar with makeup, it could work against females wishing to express themselves through their physical appearance.
When asked, female officers do think that there is one way that females can help each other. When they are in leadership positions, it falls on them to set an appropriate example of the standard, and express themselves as feminine and professional, serving as a role model for those junior to them. But even they struggle with how to apply loosely defined standards.
“If the first thing I see is make-up, then it is a problem,” one Army Soldier said, “Make-up should enhance one’s appearance, not be the first thing we see. At that point I would talk to the female Soldier and explain why I thought it was too much. We have to stick together, but not every stroke of the brush needs to be a battle.”
Hidden Expressions of Femininity
“I’ll never forget one of my first Air Force mentors who always wore lipstick and had a manicure,” Air Force Reservist Carolyn Herrick said. “She served from the 1970s onward in the maintenance area and often told me she didn’t care if she was dirty and sweaty from working on vehicles all day, she always work a silk slip top under her uniform.”
Air Force Reservist Carolyn Herrick.
Herrick goes on to explain that the effect of wearing pretty underwear under a military uniform has the same effect on the service member that it does for any woman. “It makes you feel cute and sexy even when what you’re wearing on the outside doesn’t express that. It makes you feel feminine, in our case in a predominantly male environment, when the goal of your outside attire is to be, quite literally, uniform.”
As mentioned in the book, Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe, women in the military seek ways to feel more feminine, especially those on deployment or in very male dominated career fields. One way they have found to quietly take a stand and make themselves happy is by wearing sexy underwear with their uniforms. Some of these women, upon interviews with Helen Thorpe, revealed they felt the uniform to be restricting to them, as though it was taking away ‘their feeling of femininity’ and they were searching to replace it.
Male dominated professions push women to conform to the male standard. I saw this when working in as a police dispatcher, particularly in the construction of uniforms. They don’t fit female bodies in the same manner, but there is no female cut uniform available. In the military, the maternity uniforms are horribly outdated, and make the wearer look like they are wearing a tent.
Sexism is still alive and well in the military, and though there are rules and punishments handed out when it goes too far, the mentality hasn’t shifted. Women still have a lower physical standard and the dissent about allowing them in Special Forces and Ranger School are still loud. In these instances, women are often encouraged to show they are the same as men, not bringing their personal lives or feelings into the work place.
On most military installations, it is constantly assumed that spouses are women, with no career field and no education. The 1950's housewife mentality is still applied to military spouses, which makes for a constant battle when attempting to get anything done.
These hidden expressions strike the perfect balance for many female service members. The outer appearance may look the same as their male counterparts, but inside, where it matters, they feel special, pretty, and feminine.
Rebecca Alwine has been a military spouse for 10 years, traveling the world and learning about herself. She loves running and lifting weights, is a voracious reader, and actually enjoys most of the menial tasks of motherhood. You can follow her on Twitter and on her website, www.whatrebeccathinks.com.
Underwear on uniform – photo credit Rebecca Alwine