The Army's Biased New Hair Guidelines

by Demetria Irwin

The armed forces have long had relatively strict attire and grooming standards for male and female soldiers, for safety and aesthetic reasons. But the U.S. Army’s new hair restrictions for women are creating public outcry. The new guidelines ban twists, dreadlocks, and certain types of braids. Critics of the new hair policy argue that the guidelines are biased against black women.

A White House petition has already received over 7,000 signatures. It seeks 100,000 by April 19th. Indeed, the new restrictions do make it more difficult for black women to conform to the Army’s grooming standards because many black people have tightly coiled, kinky hair. Afros that extend beyond two inches from the scalp are already not allowed, so in order to manipulate black hair in such a way that it can securely fit under a hat/helmet and meet these guidelines, braids or twists would be obvious choices. Cornrows and loose braids are allowed, but only if they are small (no more than ¼” in diameter) and uniform. It’s not clear to me why braids are allowed, but not twists. Twists can be pulled back and secured in a bun just like loose stands of hair or braids. Additionally, wigs and hair extensions are allowed as long as they have the “same general appearance as the individual’s natural hair and otherwise conform to AR 670-1.”

This makes no sense.

I am a black woman. My hair is tightly coiled and amazing, so if I were to wear a wig or hair extensions that have the "same general appearance" as my natural hair, it would be an afro, which would not be allowed in the army beyond a certain length. It appears that, for black women, the army does not actually approve of wigs or hair extensions that look like natural black hair, as kinky hair must be manipulated (in the specific and limited ways allowed) in order to conform to Army standards. What they are really asking for is straight (or straight-ish) hair that can either be pulled back into a regulation-friendly bun or straight(ish) hair that moves/swings and meets the requirements for medium-length hair. I understand wanting to have a neat, uniform appearance for soldiers. The problem is that whoever wrote this policy is not familiar with the myriad of neat, professional hairstyles available to black women due to the unique and somewhat magical qualities of black hair. Instead of pushing out a policy that essentially relegates black hair styles as unkempt or unprofessional, the Army needs to reassess, get high-ranking black women involved in the process, and re-issue these policies. Black women have served with distinction in the Army for years and they should be able to continue to do so without an unnecessary grooming burden that benefits no one.

And on a side note, acrylic nails are allowed! You can't have twists, but you can have fake nails. Foolishness.

Image: US Army