Finding Ms. Veteran America
Beyond a traditional beauty pageant, the Ms. Veteran America contest aims to showcase the real women beyond the uniform
Story by Alexandra Genova | Photographs by Peter van Agtmael—Magnum for TIME
War is not glamorous. How then do you marry the pageantry of a beauty competition with the chaotic aftermath of combat? But the Ms. Veteran America Competition, now in its sixth year, does just that. It offers a platform for women veterans to celebrate their “courage in combat” while simultaneously embracing their femininity.
For American photographer Peter Van Agtmael, who documented this year’s event held in Washington D.C., it was this strange, swirling paradox that first drew him in. Van Agtmael has spent the last 12 years photographing America at war, as well as the aftermath back home.
His visceral, often painful journey into society’s inner soul frequently reflects on its acute contradictions. “What attracted me [about the competition] is that you’re taking two seemingly polar opposite worlds and kind of very conspicuously mashing them together,” he tells TIME. “But how do you do this in a thoughtful and complex way?”
The camouflage heels, bright red gowns and glamorous photo shoots are visually engaging but Van Agtmael was keen to look beyond the conscious spectacle to something deeper. He quotes Gary Winogrand: “‘How do you make a picture more theatrical than a subject’s own theatricality?’ Well this is a situation where I’d like to make the subjects less theatrical than their own theatricality.”
But the brazen femininity of the event, which benefits housing for homeless women veterans and their children, should not be diminished. Jas Boothe, an army veteran, prominent philanthropist and founder of the competition, tells TIME: “Men who serve are never told to curb their machismo at the door; in fact, masculinity is encouraged. I live for day that when a female soldier is facing a difficult task, she will be told to “Woman Up.” When we became soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and Coasties, we didn’t stop being women; and for some it feels like our femininity is under attack the moment we put that uniform on.”
While it may be a celebration of service, many women also use the platform to come forward with their experiences of the uglier side of the military. Testimonials of rape, sexual abuse and the physical and emotional violence of combat reveal the complexity of life after war. “It wasn’t just one thing,” says Agtmael. “It was uplifting but with a strong undercurrent of darkness. I saw both in equal measure.”
Boothe doesn’t see this criticism as problematic. “It is just a reality – an ugly reality – that we need to speak out about in order for that “darker side” to be addressed,” she says. “This competition has given many women veterans the courage to find light out of that darker side.”
Beneath the sparkles and sashays, the competition engenders sisterhood and a lifeline to many veterans who are – sometimes literally – left out in the cold. “It is always women who bring about change for other women,” she adds. “The world may not get us, but we get each other and some instances we are all we have.”
Peter van Agtmael is a photographer represented by Magnum Photos.
Alexandra Genova is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.