Is PTSD Sexy?

Laurie and Debbie say:

Lindsay at Majikthise saw something in the long New York Times article, “The Women’s War,”. The article is a respectful examination of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in female Iraq veterans. Lindsay is writing about the accompanying photographs, and so are we; however, the article is excellent, and is also blogged here.


The photographs were all taken by Katy Grannan. Lindsay expresses every feminist’s anger about images like this.

Why would you get a woman in jeans and a t-shirt to pose like a swimsuit model on a beach in order to illustrate a story about how she got PTSD in Iraq and went AWOL?

And she’s right. Browsing through the pictures in the article, we see first of all that all the women are white, which is *ahem* not a reflection of the composition of American troops in Iraq. That speaks for itself.

Of the photos accompanying the article, we found one that we would call simply respectful (of a woman sitting in the woods), plus the one Lindsay features (the “swimsuit model” on the beach), and a very cinematic picture of a pretty blonde woman sitting in a car, with her hands positioned more or less like this one. Then there is one of a woman pushing a child on a swing, and one of a woman in a kitchen.

The message is straightforward enough: there are limited roles for women. Ironically enough, all of the women in this article are soldiers.

Look at how both the lighting and the camera angle in the picture above make the model’s legs bigger and more central and her head little and unimportant. (Photographers call this kind of use of camera angles “forced perspective”; it’s one of the ways full-size actors managed to play hobbits.) In this case, the photographer’s choices distance the viewer from the model: “I am not like her.” They also changes her pose from one that might look comfortable and protective to one that looks posed and can be interpreted as provocative.

So, out of six pictures for the article, Katy Grannan took five that stereotype women in familiar ways: three whores and two madonnas. We are aware that she’s replicating her own conditioning. Doing anything else, portraying women as fully human, is swimming upstream. Every photographer (or other creator of images for the media) will do this until she consciously examines her work and intentionally creates authentic images of women. Laurie remembers doing exactly this before beginning photography for Women En Large.

As some of the commenters to Majikthise point out, it isn’t only photographers who do this–women modeling for pictures are also very likely to fall into stereotypical “female” poses. However, left to their own devices, they are unlikely to stretch out along a rocky beach, and they are certainly not going to manipulate the camera to make their thighs bigger and their head smaller.

Oh, in case you’re curious? Pictures of men with PTSD, from a quick scan of Google images, fall iinto two groups: men actually on battlefields and men looking tortured and miserable … from the neck and shoulders up.


Katha Pollitt has said that “Feminism is the radical belief that women are people.” Because we have such a long tradition of women-exclusively-sexualized, women are frequently not portrayed as people. When female PTSD sufferers, or female scientists, or female athletes, or female prisoners, are portrayed only as mothers, whores and crones, it’s because the photographers, or the film-makers, or the artists, or whoever don’t know how to see women in their (our) full complexity.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the link, and for getting us to dig deeper into it.

photography, women, feminism, body image, PTSD, Iraq war, women soldiers, media, Body Impolitic

12 thoughts on “Is PTSD Sexy?

  1. Pingback: Feministe » PTSD Cheesecake
  2. Strangely, most of the photographs included online (see the multimedia feature) are much more appropriate–women in combat gear, looking relatively asexual.

  3. Of course women with PTSD are sexy.[1] They’re damsels in distress. The classic damsel in distress is being held prisoner by a monster (usually male, but sometimes an older, sexually rapacious/repressive female), and the first thing the rescuer does is take the monster’s place in her affections, then in her bed. Stockholm Syndrome in action.

    Women with PTSD are scared, they’re helpless, they’re easy to comfort/victimize.And nobody will believe them if they say they didn’t want sex, because they’re already defined as crazy.

    Yes, genuine nurturing and protective instincts can be expressed sexually — by people of all genders and in all life situations. I’ve been known to grow rapidly attached to people in pain. I’ve sought and given comfort with my body. And I’m not even willing to say that all the times I did that were innocent and harmless.

    I don’t know what the right answer is. I do know that presenting people with PTSD as pin-ups is the wrong one.

    [1] For the record: I have complex PTSD, which I have written about extensively.

  4. If you look at the paper magazine, there’s another picture on the cover, which I found disturbing. It’s a woman wearing light-colored camoflague fatigues, backed into a corner and looking anxious. This would be a great image showing PTSD…except that she’s barefoot, and holding a dress uniform on a hanger. It looked wrong to me.

  5. I thought Lindsay made a good point in her original post: the gaze could be ironic.

    Maybe (hopefully) this isn’t just lazy stereotype reinforcement but rather exploiting and exploding the stereotypes because the women themselves are contrary to our stereotypes (being combat soldiers and being female sufferers of PTSD, which I’d say we associate mostly with male Vietnam vets).

  6. Look at how both the lighting and the camera angle in the picture above make the model’s legs bigger and more central and her head little and unimportant. (Photographers call this kind of use of camera angles “forced perspective”; it’s one of the ways full-size actors managed to play hobbits.) In this case, the photographer’s choices distance the viewer from the model: “I am not like her.” They also changes her pose from one that might look comfortable and protective to one that looks posed and can be interpreted as provocative.

    But there’s another thing that nagged me about that picture. She’s in uniform, yet looking lost and sad in the empty white spaces of that room. She’s in uniform — and she’s fat. The picture emphasizes her weight, makes her look uncomfortable in her body (which at this point she may be). There’s an implied narrative there:” Once she was proud, strong, and slender enough to be in the military. Now she’s broken and fat. See how horrible PTSD is! It makes women gain weight. Nothing could be worse.”

  7. Diana, yes, I noticed that too. Thanks for pointing it out!

    Lynn (first), you’re on a very different track than we were, and an extremely useful one. We just didn’t spend any time discussing what PTSD itself had to do with the photographs, and I’m glad you brought that in.

    Adrian, that picture is also online and LIndsay discusses it. She also points out the ballerina-style raised toe, which I recognize because it’s something I do habitually when a camera is pointed at me (and I don’t have PTSD). I recognize it as a girly response to a camera. Thanks for pointing it out!

    Dave, that could be true. In my opinion, if it’s true, it’s too subtle for me, and likely too subtle for the average viewer. Irony in images is always difficult, and if that was Grannan’s intent, my personal feeling is that she didn’t succeed.

    Lynn (second), you’re right.

  8. There is enough interesting material here for several re-visits. But I want to thank Lynn Kendall for one thing she said in her amazing live journal entry (I followed the link in her comment above) on her survival of abuse (I will look for your book, Lynn, when it becomes available).

    One quote from Lynn’s journal entry resonated with my own survival:

    “The other thing I have to say: stories saved my life. I owe as much to certain authors, living and dead, as to my wonderful therapists. They gave me a family, ways to behave, hope that I could survive, strategies for dealing with the horror, a reason to go on — so I could live to tell the truth. I would not be here without them.”

    I have not suffered PTSD. My own survival is simply keeping the flame of self-esteem alive in a whirlwind of body hatred and devaluing of women in general and fat, old and disabled women in particular.

    I have to have graphic elements in the pictures pointed out before I see them, but images tell stories in their own visual language. Stories, whether told by images or words or both, can be damaging and limiting.

    However stories can and do save our lives. One author (Jack Woodward) said, stories are daydreams, and I would add that daydreams give us the power to reframe our reality, while stories provide the imaginative light to guide us in the darkness. I totally believe in the healing power of stories that give us courage and teach us to hope and survive.

  9. I’ve worked as a news photographer. It was a great job, but I eventually had to leave because I developed TRS (Testosterone Revulsion Syndrome). I was the only woman in the photo department.

    Those shots are not ironic. They are pure misogyny.

  10. When I saw these photographs I was struck by the pain in these women’s faces. I had a very strong reaction.
    It so reminded me of how I felt during a prolonged period of depression and minimal self-esteem in my twenties.
    I have to say it – these women’s faces look exactly how I felt during this period. I felt strong empathy and at the same time, respect. I had the unexpected feeling of acceptance of this period of my life.
    In contrast, I have often felt ashamed, guilty, and bewildered by my years spent in this time, in contrast to what my peers were accomplishing with their lives. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to live up to my minimal expectations. It took me years of living and counseling to look forward with more self acceptance, although this period was always puzzling to me.
    I had recently cut out and put on my wall some photos of women in styles of clothes that I like. I intend to add these photos to this display. This is part of my life. These photos really struck me with the feeling that this is a part of my life to be affirmed, that without this period I wouldn’t be who I am now.
    The only photo I felt was out of place was the the person lying on the shore. At that period in my life I never would have remotely felt remotely attractive.
    I am actually thankful for these photos. These women are NOT the stereotypical female ” victims” – they are humans struggling with an extremely difficult emotional situation. I am glad to see this portrayed without condescention.

  11. ClareA,

    Nothing in this blog was about the women being “stereotypical victims”. It was talking about the way they were visually portrayed. Although we don’t agree about that, I’m glad that the images are useful for you.

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