Thursday, March 20, 2014

A review of Whatever The Cost: One Woman's Battle To Find Peace With Her Body by Jenifer Beaudean

I just downloaded a couple more e-books from Amazon.com.  One book that intrigued me was Jenifer Beaudean's 2011 memoir, Whatever The Cost: One Woman's Battle To Find Peace With Her Body.  I read this book because it has components of three things that interest me: the Army, West Point, and eating disorders.  I had read about how some women either join the military to stay thin or develop eating disorders in the military.  Jenifer Beaudean entered West Point, aka The United States Military Academy, in 1987.  Women had been at the Academy since 1976 and though she did not come from a military family, Beaudean was inspired by a trip she took to West Point in the 70s, when women were still new.

Beaudean explains that she was not a natural choice for the military.  Creative and artistic, she got good grades and was a hard worker.  But she was not a natural athlete and she loved food.  Through strict dieting and diligent working out, Beaudean entered West Point in 1987 weighing 133.5 pounds at five feet four inches tall.  She missed the maximum weight allowed for her height by just half a pound.

Life at West Point was very difficult for Beaudean.  It was physically and academically challenging and she comforted herself with junk food.  Because the Academy also served heavy rations at mealtimes, Beaudean gained about twenty pounds over the course of her time at West Point.  She did end up a "diet tray" (slang term for overweight folks in the military) and had to lose weight or face being kicked out of the Academy.  Toward the end of her years at West Point, she developed bulimia, which followed her for years after she graduated.

Beaudean completed her service obligation after graduation and left the Army in 1994 due to an injury she sustained in a parachuting mishap.  She married and divorced another soldier and went on to earn an MBA at the University of Michigan.

Beaudean's story is one that I think probably doesn't get told often enough in the military.  There is a lot of pressure to be thin and athletic as a service member, though some branches are stricter than others.  I thought Whatever The Cost was decently written, though there were a couple of minor editing glitches.  At one point, Jenifer Beaudean describes a male cadet as "strack".  Having been around Bill and other military folks, I think she means STRAC, which is a 70s term military personnel used to describe someone who is Standing Tall and Ready Around the Clock or Standing Tough and Ready Around the Clock or Strategic Tough and Ready Around the Clock.  The point is, it's an acronym that stands for something.  "Strack" is just how it's pronounced.  I don't remember Beaudean explaining this point in her book.

At another point in the book, she writes of trying to fit in her "dress mess".  What I think she means is "mess dress", which is a formal uniform worn by servicemembers at certain occasions.  Maybe "dress mess" is an official term, but I've never heard of it.  Someone can educate me if I'm wrong.

I also think that Beaudean spent a lot of time writing about the West Point experience and not enough time writing about the bulimia.  While I did find reading about her time at West Point fascinating, I'm guessing that a lot of readers would pick up this book because they'd want to read about the eating disorder she developed there.  I felt like that part of the book was a bit underdeveloped and could have used more substance.  I might have included a bit less about the West Point experience if space was an issue, though I have to admit, that was also very interesting reading.

I admire Beaudean for working toward fulfilling her West Point dream and sticking through it, as difficult as it was.  I'm glad she found competent help and overcame bulimia, even though she writes that it will always be "there" in her head.  I liked the way she ended her book, too.  Overall, I'd probably give Whatever The Cost four solid stars.



On a related note regarding women at West Point…

I read and reviewed an excellent book by Carol Barkalow, who was one of the first women at West Point.  I posted my review on Epinions, but I'm reposting it here because Epinions is going away…  I'm not sure if Barkalow's book is still available, but it's a good read.

Being one of the first women at West Point...

 Apr 6, 2012
Review by   
Rated a Very Helpful Review

    Pros:Interesting look at what it was like to be a woman at West Point.

    Cons:Dated.  Hard to find.  A bit unbalanced.

    The Bottom Line:I'm grateful to the women who dared to venture In The Men's House

    I was a rising college junior home for the summer when I first ran across Carol Barkalow's book In the Men's House: An Inside Account of Life in the Army by One of West Point's First Female Graduates.  I clearly remember the day I purchased this book.  It was late May 1992 and I was wasting time in a Rite Aid drug store, looking for something interesting to read.  I was intrigued by the bold red lettering and picture of an attractive blonde woman on the paperback cover of In The Men's House.  Having grown up the daughter of an Air Force officer and lived my whole life around the military culture, I had a feeling I would be interested in Barkalow's story, particularly since she had bravely been among the first women at West Point.  The book also reminded me of an old made for TV movie I had seen about those brave women who sought to bring equality to the U.S. military.

    Twenty years later, I still own Barkalow's book and have read it several times.  Many things have changed, although my closeness to the military has not.  I am now an Army wife.  A few days ago, I decided to do an Internet search to see what Carol Barkalow was up to these days.  I see that Barkalow, who had been a captain when she published her book, has retired as a lieutenant colonel. It appears that she is now on the public speaking circuit, living in southern Florida.

    One book-- two parts

    In The Men's House is divided into two major parts.  The first half of the book is about Barkalow's initiation into the Army.  In 1976, she was a high school graduate from Clifton Park, New York and one of 119 women entering the United States Military Academy, popularly known as West Point.  Barkalow and her female comrades were the very first women to attend West Point; consequently, they got a lot of attention, both negative and positive.  Year by year, Barkalow explains what it was like to progress through West Point until she and 61 other women finally graduated on May 27, 1980.

    The second half of the book is about Barkalow's initial years as an Army officer.  Her career commenced in Germany back in early 1981.  Then a second lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery branch, it was Barkalow's first time out of the country and she wore her Class A uniform for the overnight flight to Frankfurt.  Barkalow describes three fast-paced years in Europe.

    In 1984, Barkalow changed branches and became a Transportation officer, which had been her first choice.  She was transferred to Fort Lee, an Army post located between Petersburg and Hopewell, Virginia.  Barkalow's new assignment as a company commander of a transportation unit in Virginia was not as intense as her work in Germany had been.  Consequently, Barkalow found time to develop a new hobby-- bodybuilding.  An entry in a bodybuilding contest and subsequent picture that ran in the post newspaper turned out to be somewhat scandalous.  Barkalow almost lost her command over a picture that ran of her in a bikini.

    This entire book really addresses sexism in the Army as it was in the late 1970s to mid 1980s.  Barkalow recounts her own experiences as well as those of classmates and colleagues.  She includes many snippets of diary entries she kept while at West Point.  She also includes photos.

    My thoughts 

    Obviously, I think this is an interesting book or I would not have read it more than one time.  I did notice during this latest reading that my perspective of Barkalow's story had changed quite a bit.  When I read this book before, I was a single young woman.  I had spent a lot of time around military folks, but wasn't totally vested in the culture.  This time, I read In The Men's House as an Army wife.  My husband, Bill, was able to give me some insight into some of the things Barkalow wrote about in her book, since Bill is himself an Army officer.

    This time, when I read about Barkalow's time in Europe and Virginia, I could relate more.  Bill and I spent time in Germany not long ago.  I grew up in Virginia, though I've never been to Fort Lee.  Barkalow wrote that one of her first choices of assignments would have been at Fort Eustis, which I am very familiar with, having grown up very close to it.  So when I read Barkalow's story this time, it was like I had a lot more firsthand knowledge of the places she was writing about and the Army lifestyle.

    On the other hand, this book was published over twenty years ago.  The Army has definitely changed in a lot of ways.  Most recently, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was repealed, allowing servicemembers who are openly gay to serve without fear of reprisals.  Barkalow makes very oblique references to the Army's collective attitude about homosexuality, but doesn't really address it much in her book, other than to write that she didn't care too much what her colleagues' sexual orientations were.  She writes of dating men at West Point and ridiculous measures that were taken when the first female recruits showed up.  Many of Barkalow's observations are very interesting.  For instance, she writes that the first female recruits had to have incredibly short haircuts, wear very unflattering pants, deal with sexist remarks and obscene insults by upperclassmen, and cope with an administration that had no idea what to do with the women.

    Barkalow writes that women at West Point forced the institution to change some of its long held but ill considered policies.  It's because of women at West Point that cadets stopped running in combat boots.  They now run in athletic shoes, mainly because when women tried to run in boots, they got stress fractures.  Another example of policy change had to do with hygiene.  It used to be that cadets would be given a couple of minutes to shower or would not be allowed to go to the bathroom when they needed to go.  When women started attending West Point, the administration apparently realized that healthy women have menstrual periods.  Not letting the women shower appropriately and forcing them to ignore toilet needs led to stained uniforms and health problems.  Policies changed for the better.

    I liked the first half of this book better than the second half.  Frankly, I think Barkalow might have had a better book had she just written more about her time at West Point instead of her first couple of assignments in the Army.  At the time she wrote this book, Barkalow was still early in her career.  A second book about her Army career seems like it would make a lot more sense, since she admits that West Point and real Army life were two different animals.  Also, I gathered from a glance at her Facebook page, that Barkalow may now identify herself as a lesbian.  A book about her experiences serving under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would also be interesting.

    Overall  

    I'm not sure how easy In The Men's House is to find these days.  Given than it's twenty years old, it's a touch dated, although I do think it provides good insight into what it was like to be one of West Point's very first female cadets.  I think it also offers a good glimpse of what it was like to be a female Army officer at a time when female officers were a distinct rarity.  I think any woman who served during that time must have a great deal of courage.  That being said, I enjoyed the first half of the book more than I did the second half. 




        

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