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Sexy for Soldiers

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When I read the story of Israeli women sending sexy photos off the to IDF to wish them luck and boost morale, my reaction was more of a bemused shake of the head than anything akin to the outrage, confusion, and energy-draining sorrow I’ve been experiencing while reading a lot of recent war-related stories.

The same can be said for my response to the tale of the observant women in New York who are campaigning for an Israeli victory by holding a modesty contest at home, convinced that immodesty brings bad events to brethren abroad. Good luck covering those elbows for your cause, ladies. As Talia Lavin writes, her tone laced with irony, “The way to “help our brothers in their time of need,” apparently, is to suppress every inch of skin their sisters possess.” She even suggests an Iron Dome over women’s flesh.

These are fluffy human stories during a terrible, terrible time, maybe. Or are they more? Feminist thinking tells us that this is an expected reaction. It’s no surprise that women on both ends of the modesty spectrum — who might be ideologically opposed in many ways — would be encouraged to focus on their bodies as a way to influence the outcome of a conflict abroad, or shore up a sense of national character on the “home front.” It’s the way of war.

In her post-9/11 book, “The Terror Dream,” Susan Faludi explores a newfound emphasis on domesticity and femininity that pervaded the American cultural landscape after the terror attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. Traditionally, for centuries of American history, she writes, in times of strife or alleged “invasion,” “American culture would generate an ironclad countermyth of cowboy swagger and feminine frailty, which has been reanimated whenever the nation feels threatened.”

Faludi situates this kind myth in a particularly American and frontier context, but it seems like it might be one specific example of a more universal pattern. Women’s bodies and gender roles have been, across patriarchal cultures around the world, the locus for various forms of social anxiety. So it makes sense that women would be encouraged to both cover and disrobe themselves for the cause.

But another, sadder truth beneath the feminist theories, is that as the saying goes, war is hell — particularly for women in the crossfire. Disguising this fact by honing in on hot ladies is another way of whitewashing the reality. The most innocent victims of war are often women and children. A recent piece at Women’s eNews, looks into regional conflict and concludes that whether in Gaza, Israel, Syria or Lebanon, women suffer a particularly heavy toll.

In particular, “women in Gaza whose movements are slowed by pregnancy or the need to gather up toddlers and small children” the ‘knock-on-the roof’ pre-bomb warning doesn’t afford enough time to escape. Furthermore, “if they are out of the direct line of fire, they are suffering from a shortage of maternity care as hospitals shift their focus to the wounded.”

Perhaps shifting the cultural lens to the intact bodies of civilians far from the front lines, particularly nubile female ones that either need to be shown off or shielded dependent on the patriarchal ideology du jour, is a means of redirecting our thoughts from the mutilated, stressed, mistreated bodies that suffer during war.

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