Once upon a time, I wanted to be in the army. At 14 years old I joined the army cadet force and when I went to university I joined the Officer Training Corps. That provided me with 8 years of a pseudo-military experience, and was enough for me to decide that the army wasn’t for me. Now, I could pretend that all the years of being called ‘Doris’, the awkward stripper hired to entertain at a formal ball where I was required to cover my knees and shoulders and the warnings to shut my window on military bases because the squaddies had been out drinking were the reasons I changed my mind, but the reality of it was, it just wasn’t right for me.
For a start, the uniform reduced me to a pre-pubescent boy, skinny white arms sticking out of flapping sleevees and baggy combat trousers cinched in at the waist with an ugly belt. The boots were a nightmare to run in and no matter how fit I hoped I was, stick a pair of combat boots on my feet, sling a rifle across my shoulders and pack my webbing with ammo and rations and suddenly I am about as slick as an elephant on roller skates.
In my experience, the army was a boys club, and to earn my position as a member I had to either provide something nice to look at (see above for accurate description of myself in uniform), or be able to keep up on a section attacj (fire support anyone?) I stayed in OTC for the banter and the friendships, the parties, the dinners and the opportunities (I did get to go on a 9 day ski trip for just £50). I was a highland dancer and I loved performing as part of our troop (My OTC was in Scotland) I thoroughly enjoyed MACC tasks and adventure races and I did my best out in the field, but was plagued by injuries. The boots gave me in-grown toenails and once, right at the end of a 10k tab out on exercise, I slipped down the side of a hill in all my kit (rifle, webbing, bergen) and cracked a bone in my foot. Whoops. On top of all this, my partner at the time was somewhat of an OTC superstar, and I soon became better known as his girlfriend, rather than any of my own achievements. I know I surprised a few people when I got a place on the Teach First graduate scheme during my final year at uni – they had written me off as an army wife.
When I handed my kit in after 4 years at OTC, I said a fond farewell to rifle cleaning, rations, mess tins and magazines. Then 3 years later, as I sat at interview for my current position as a teacher in a boarding school, they examined my CV and a glowing reference from my former CO and said how brilliant it would be if I could get involved with the school CCF and commission as a CCF officer.
Now, the girl with the ill-fitting helmet, stuck in fire-support with an ingrown toenail was long gone. I had undergone an operation to remove the nail beds at the sides of both my big toes, and spent a summer in bandages under enforced rest to ensure that I would no longer be held back by such tiny, painful problems. I had dedicated myself to a fitness regime, was much fitter and stronger, and after getting through the Teach First programme, more confident in general. However, I was nervous at the prospect of CCF summer camp, as a week of military life without the friends from OTC who had always made it so much fun, seemed very daunting. Plus, army food. Not good for health conscious me.
We took 10 cadets, 2 of which were girls. I was pretty determined that they would not be intimidated by a male-dominated environment, so I resolved to set a good example. That meant trying my best not to show how completely terrified I was on the high-ropes course, conquering all 4 climbing walls, pretending that I was totally ok to carry on riding after falling off my mountain bike and donning a wetsuit with the rest for a sailing experience. That was just day one. When it came to the military skills, I ensured that the girls (who were among the most capable,) did not miss out on their fair share of leadership opportunities and a was not afraid to get on my belt buckle when I accompanied a recce patrol out on exercise.
There was one sticking point on the camp. On the ranges, the girls were referred to as ‘Doris’ a fairly harmless military term for any woman, but when you are a 14 year old girl in a male-dominated environment, a name like that suggests that you are less important than the boys, who did not receive such nicknames. My SSI suggested that I fed this back at the evening staff brief. As the only female there, I was nervous, but calmly stated that the cadets had thoroughly enjoyed their shooting, but the girls had requested not to be called Doris. The Major in charge blinked at me.
‘What would you like us to call them?’
‘Well, whatever you call the boys, their names I expect.’
At this point, a Captain at the back pipes up.
‘Banter. It’s banter. Can you not take banter?’
I took a deep breath. It’s very easy to brush something off as banter when you are a white adult male in the military, but not so easy when you are a 14 year old girl trying to find your place in such a male-dominated environment. Well, that’s what I thought, but in reality I could see where this was going. Soon, I would have the reputation of the ridiculous ‘Feminazi’ in the CCF and no-one would take me seriously. I said nothing, but stared the officer in question out until he apologised and admitted that it wasn’t fair or funny. Later, I fed-back what had happened, and reassured the girls that they wouldn’t be called Doris again, and if they were, and the boys were not receiving such nicknames, to let me know.
The next day, I overheard one of the Paras who was leading some of the training, refer to a group of boys who were not keeping up as ‘ladies.’ One of my female cadets approached him and asked why he was calling them ‘ladies’. He seemed pretty shocked to be questioned. My cadet was quite earnest as she pressed him for a reason why they were ‘ladies’ and what he was suggesting. I knew then that I had set the right example and that the girls would not need me to handle Doris-gate again.
Other than those two minor issues, the rest of the camp was great and the cadets, both male and female, had an amazing time. The soldiers who were involved with the training offered praise and critique in equal measure to all cadets, regardless of gender. As for me, other than being mistaken for a cadet 97% of the time, I really enjoyed myself and have had my enthusiasm for the military re-invigorated.
Nevertheless, I was still quite nervous about the impression I had made on the other CCF staff and regular soldiers who were providing the training. Whilst I knew I was right to highlight the girls objections to being called Doris, I also didn’t want to ostracise myself. Throwing myself into all the training, camming up and spending the night in a basha helped, but also, my fitness. I had no weights on camp, nor much time to do proper work-outs, so I just took my Garmin Forerunner and did a 5k round the camp every other morning. Whilst out doing this, I bumped into a number of the other male staff who were also getting some phys done before breakfast. One of the men I saw was the Captain who had accused me of not being able to take banter. He seemed surprised to see me out running, but smiled and later that day approached me and talked to me about fitness etc. It seemed that by taking my fitness seriously enough to keep it ticking over with a few 5ks over the course of the week, I earned a little more respect.
I often wonder about how fitness and feminism fit together. On the one hand, I know I exercise to conform with a particular body type admired by a patriarchal society. On the other, I like to be able to keep up with/ leave behind my male counterparts… perhaps I have a point to prove.