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Congressional Black Caucus Urges Rethink Of Army Hair Rules

According to a US Army PowerPoint presentation, none of these three hairstyles would be acceptable under the new regulations.
US Army
According to a US Army PowerPoint presentation, none of these three hairstyles would be acceptable under the new regulations.

The women of the Congressional Black Caucus have sent a letter asking Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reconsider new Army regulations that made headlines earlier this month.

AR 670-1, the revised regulations for grooming and appearance, has some black female enlistees in an uproar: it dictates that black women may wear their hair au naturelle in twists or braids if they choose, but they must be narrow twists or braids — no more than a quarter-inch in diameter. (The Army has forbidden twists and dreadlocks since 2005, but wasn't specific about size. And while thin twists are still allowed, dreadlocks remain prohibited.)

In the April 10 letter, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined with more than a dozen other women Caucus members to tell Hagel, "African American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace." The letter notes that such standards "should shift based on each community's unique and practical needs. New cultural norms and trends naturally change, ensuring that no person feels targeted or attacked based on his or her appearance."

A 'More Professional-Looking' Army

The revisions also include new rules on tattoos (which are allowed, but only certain kinds in certain places at certain sizes), mustaches (short and trim, no Ron Burgundy 'staches allowed) and sideburns. Mohawks are a no-go. So are is a partially-shaved style called the Horseshoe. But it's the revised women's hair regulations that have caused the biggest stir.

At a time when more and more African-American women are choosing to wear their hair natural, without being straightened by chemicals or heat, the Army has decreed that only certain natural coiffures are acceptable. Like the regulations for tattoos and mustaches, the Army says the hair regulations are part of a push to make the all-volunteer army uniform in aspect, and "more professional-looking." Many black servicewomen have complained that the new rules are biased. The ladies of the CBC agree.

"The lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent," says the letter. "This policy needs to be reviewed prior to publishing to allow for neat and maintained natural hairstyles."

Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs of the Georgia National Guard says the definition of "professional-looking" needs some broadening. Twists, she told Army Times, are professional — they allow her and other black women who have kinky-curly hair to keep their natural hair neat and out-of-the-way on maneuvers. They say twists and large braids stay put in the field and are impervious to sweat or water immersion. While many of her white comrades have hair that can be pulled back and pinned into a bun (acceptable, but only if it's above the collar), Jacobs said her thick, curly hair can't be contained like that.

So she started a petition on the White House website asking the Obama administration to "reconsider changes to AR 670-1 to allow professional ethnic hairstyles."

Reaction To The Reaction

About 15,000 people have signed so far. Many believe it's unlikely that another revision will occur; the Army spent a couple years working on the current set. But the petition has been the catalyst for some fierce online debates, in addition to the letter from the women of the CBC. A sampling of opinion from the discussions reveals three broad categories:

  • It's the Army. And you volunteered for it. Armies usually demand a uniform appearance. This is what "uniform" means. Get over it.
  • You People are always asking for special treatment. This is just the latest example.
  • If they gave incoming women the same buzz-cut the men get, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
  • Gender-blind buzz-cut mandates for basic training don't happen because the military doesn't want it do, says this fascinating little video from USA Today.

    (Note the reporter explaining all this would not be able to keep her natural hairstyle!)

    On social media sites, a number of black self-identified veterans of both genders voiced agreement with the new regs. ("It's the Army, not a fashion show," one Facebook comment pointed out.) Many others spoke against the regulations.

    Lt. Col. Alayne P. Conway, spokeswoman for Army Headquarters at the Pentagon, told us that although the Army is insisting on uniformity, there is latitude, within reason. "Many hairstyles are acceptable, as long as they are neat and conservative," she emailed in a statement. And, she added, safe: "Headgear is expected to fit snugly and comfortably, without bulging or distortion from the intended shape of the headgear and without excessive gaps."

    In other words, helmets must fit well enough to protect the wearer, and fatigue caps shouldn't have odd lumps from the hairstyles underneath. The point is to remain safe during maneuvers. And not just twists and dreads — long hair unpinned and long bangs are also non-regulation, for a reason: "Loading rounds into artillery tubes," Conway said by way of example, "you don't want hair getting into the way, obscuring your vision."

    But retired Lt. Col. Patricia Jackson-Kelley, a member of the National Association of Black Military Women, told the Washington Post the new hair regulations mostly target black women. "I don't see how a woman wearing three braids in her hair, how that affects her ability to perform her duty in the military." (In the same interview, Kathaleen Harris, NABMW's current president, noted the Army is innately conservative in its standards, and said that while some women look "gorgeous" in their twists, "some people go overboard. The twists are not small twists but they're real large ones and it doesn't fit the cover, your hat.")

    In a statement emailed to Stars & Stripes, Conway wrote:

    African-American female soldiers were involved in the process of developing the new female hair standards. ... Not only were nearly 200 senior female leaders and soldiers (which included a representative sample of the Army's populations) part of the decision-making process on the female hair standards, but the group was also led by an African-American female.

    The rules apply to non-black women, who are also forbidden to put their straight hair in large twists or braids, or to grow dreadlocks. But as Anatole France once dryly observed, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread." Black women who are upset with the new hair regulations feel that while the rules might apply to all Army women, they more acutely affect women who are African-American.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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