MJ Hegar's tattoos conceal the scars from shrapnel wounds sustained during her service in Afghanistan as an Air Force helicopter pilot.
A super PAC supporting Sen. John Cornyn in his campaign for reelection in Texas used a photograph of his Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar, on a website to portray her tattooed appearance as "radical," she said in a tweet on Thursday.
Hegar took to social media to remind Texans that misogyny is alive and well in the Lone Star State.
"A pro-Cornyn Super PAC is using a photo of my tattoos to make me seem 'radical,'" she said. "That's pretty funny to me."
Hegar added that the ad's implications were troubling due to the meaning behind her tattoos.
"You think I'm ashamed of them? They cover my shrapnel wounds from when my helicopter was shot down," she said. "They're a mark of my service to our country. I'm damn proud of them."
Hegar served for 12 years in the United States Air Force, spending multiple Afghanistan deployments as a helicopter pilot.
On her third Afghanistan tour, her medevac helicopter was shot down during a combat search-and-rescue mission. Though wounded in her rifle arm by ground fire from the Taliban, she managed to fire back — while holding on to the skids of a moving helicopter.
Hegar was awarded the Purple Heart in 2009 for her actions, and the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2011. She's one of only seven women in history to receive the latter award since Amelia Earhart became the first in 1933.
Cornyn, on the other hand, ducked possible service in Vietnam by obtaining a student deferment while he was attending Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Since his draft number was 28, it's likely he would otherwise have gone to war.
Hegar is no stranger to attacks on her appearance, having made her tattoos a cornerstone of her political persona. When she challenged incumbent Rep. John Carter for Texas' 31st Congressional District, she put out a campaign ad of herself highlighting her tattoos.
With her cherry blossom tree tattoo visible, she toured a tattoo parlor while telling the story of her own tattoos and how they have inspired her to ensure all Texans are also "covered" — with low-cost health care and prescriptions.
"I was getting the same advice that a lot of female candidates are getting: cut your hair, put on a suit, smile more," Hegar told Bustle during her 2018 campaign. "I don't take that kind of direction. I’m not going to hide who I am, and the tattoo is a big part of who I am."
She said her arms are "peppered" with small scars, and she views her coverup tattoo as a reminder that joy transcends hardship.
"It’s also in line with my personality, where I take something that could paint me as a victim or could be considered a tragic moment and turn it into something beautiful," Hegar said in the Bustle interview.
This isn't the first time the candidate's appearance has come under fire from the Cornyn camp. In August, the National Republican Senatorial Committee altered photos of Hegar photos in an ad touting her as "too liberal for Texas," graying her hair and shading her skin to look decades older.
But the hypocrisy of the Texas GOP is stark: In 2014, a Los Angeles street artist named Sabo created a poster depicting Cornyn's fellow Republican, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, a sculpted six-pack, and a bare chest sporting prison tattoos.
The Cruz campaign went wild, entering into a deal with the artist to sell merchandising of the image everywhere, including at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. Cruz himself went on C-SPAN later to recount the story of the tattoo posters fondly.
While Cornyn is still poised to win in Texas, Hegar's campaign is within striking distance, boasting single-digit margins of only 6 points (43% to 37%) behind her opponent, according to the most recent Siena College/New York Times poll.
Still, these low blows by the Cornyn campaign betray a fundamental inequity in American politics and can sway election outcomes, experts say.
"The physical appearance of female leaders can be expected to be quite important in how members of society view them and ultimately would vote," Maria Elizabeth Grabe, media professor at Indiana University Bloomington, commented in August to the Dallas Morning News after the National Republican Senatorial Committee photoshopped Hegar to look older. "How women appear visually might very well matter more in politics than how men appear."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.