TALK about a tabloid's dream. The leaked news that four serving women in the armed forces had breast implants in a military hospital, paid for by Ministry of Defence money, must have made the sweaty picture editors of every scabby rag pop open the champagne, allowing, as it did in The Sun, a comely picture of a topless model half clad in battle fatigues accompanied by a spoof army recruitment ad with the slogan "Be the breast". Yes, yes, very amusing.
For some curious reason, despite the cheerful opportunities for cheap-shot humour - a way of thinking from which few of us are completely immune - this seemingly unimportant piece of news has profoundly depressed me. It's always depressing, of course, to be reminded that the tabloids are not staffed, as we might hope, by clever but nasty people who deliberately suppress their intellect to patronise a stupid readership, but in fact by the usual ghastly old trolls who are equally as stupid as their readers, wear horrible shirts, have tobacco breath and think Tolstoy is a new Nissan hatchback. But naked, unguarded misogyny among such a repugnant group is to be fully expected, along with racism, homophobia and the utterly baffling belief that Victoria Beckham is somehow posh.
While all this is naturally a cause for continuing despair, it's the tiny, between-the-lines implications of the story that are more troubling than the predictability of its reporting by morons. It's hard for most of us to contemplate what life must really be like for women working in institutions that have traditionally been all-male bastions, and highly prejudiced ones at that. We hear occasional bad news from the police force or military about sexual harassment, deliberate promotion-blocking or straightforward hostility of such a serious nature that it requires redress in the courts. But since such stories of woe are so sporadic and rare in comparison to the increasing numbers of women embarking on these careers, it was comforting to think that things were changing for the better.
Even the fact the bad cases were coming to light at all gave us cause for hope. In the same way that JFK, during the civil rights troubles in America, expressed the sensible view that although the state couldn't legislate for the secrets of the human heart, it could demand a behaviour from citizens that would be true to the cause of liberty, our own policemen and servicemen currently being forced to behave in a politically correct manner, even when they don't believe in it, is still a very good thing indeed. Who cares about the unchangeable petty prejudices of the deeply stupid as long as they are prevented formally and rigorously from acting upon them?
The awful aspect of the breast implant story is that while the self esteem of the women concerned is quite clearly damaged, the system that despises their presence endorses their dysmorphophobia in order to keep them firmly in their place.
It's hard to be able to discuss the individual cases in any kind of detail without knowing the true facts and full medical history of the women involved, but being told that the implants were done for reasons of recurring and chronic psychological difficulty which prevented the women fulfilling their duties, actually tells us a great deal.
Such self-loathing in psychiatric patients that makes them desire bodily mutilation, which breast implants most surely are, is not uncommon. What is astounding is that any military personnel ill enough to require such drastic action are surely people who should be signed off service until psychiatric treatment deems them well enough to recover their mental capacity to fight and protect.
If we transpose a similar illness to men, let's say a bald squaddie whose illness made him believe he could not be an effective serving member of Her Majesty's Armed Forces without a full head of hair, we have to ask ourselves what would happen to him. Would this man be sent to LA for an Elton John-style hair transplant? Or would he simply be treated by a psychiatrist until he was well enough to realise that his phobia was just an illness, and if he couldn't be cured would he be discharged like anyone else unable to serve in full health?
The phobia that these ill women shared, the genuine belief that having bigger breasts would be necessary to be thought of as useful people, is clearly ridiculous, but the fact that their wishes were fulfilled suggests rather strongly that their superiors in the forces agree with them.
The actions of the MoD imply that it agrees a woman is defined by her physical looks, not by her capabilities, her stamina, her intelligence or her sense of duty and loyalty.
The message it sends out to other women is quite terrifying. A well woman doesn't think in these terms. She joins the army for all the same reasons that a man does. She wants to travel, learn a skill, contribute to her country, feel important and respected. Just as men don't imagine they will be judged by the set of their jaw, the size of their pectorals or their penis, she does not think she will be judged by her body, her face or her sexual guile.
The outcry about who paid for these disfiguring operations is irrelevant and missing the point. By having sanctioned such procedures to be performed at all, the MoD has done the difficult cause of women serving in the military almost irreparable damage.
The hurt goes far deeper than simply the renewed opportunity for "get 'em out for the lads" tabloid bile. The message is loud and clear that the military still has no earthly idea of the real meaning of equality. The thought of the jibes and innuendos that British service women the world over will be enduring right now is nothing compared to the ugliness of the thought that those in charge probably don't even realise what a stupid thing they've done.
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