Commentary: Did the US Army Just Declare War on Natural Hair?

army hair

Commentary: Did the US Army Just Declare War on Natural Hair?

Yes, say thousands of soldiers whose styles were just re-classified and unauthorized.

Published April 2, 2014

The U.S. military recently made life decidedly harder — and less welcoming — for Black women who are enlisted. In an update to Army Regulation 670-1, which mandates the appearance of soldiers, a number of Black hairstyles were declared unfit for duty.

For women, the rules in a new manual are intended to “clarify standards for braids, cornrows, hair extensions and wigs,” as well as “unauthorized styles (dreadlocks and twists).” Hair cannot be shorter than 1/4 inch, meaning super short naturals are out. Hair “may be worn loosely” the guide says, but then it goes on to prohibit “bulks of hair” which are “wider than the width of the head.” Considering that most Black women with natural hair wear their hair “loosely” and that their hair grows outwards, this is also problematic. Also not allowed: locks or any style involving two strands of hair twisted together. Hair can be rolled or cornrowed along the scalp; provided there is less than 1/8 inch of scalp shown between each section and they all go in the same direction. Hair extensions and wigs are authorized, provided they “have the same general appearance as the individual’s natural hair.” That qualifier is unintentionally ironic considering most things that look like the individual’s natural hair are banned.

There were also regulations for men’s hair. These include making sure sideburns do not extend below the ear or mustaches don’t cover any part of the lip. They are predominantly race-neutral rules that overwhelmingly point to issues of “neatness,” not texture policing. 

Though many women are unsure how to react now that their hairstyles are suddenly unauthorized, there is one who knew exactly what to do: She logged onto the Internet. Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs, of the Georgia National Guard, is petitioning the Obama administration to reconsider these rules. In an interview with the Army Times, she insisted that the ban on twists — how she wears her hair — will be particularly hard, as it is the most common style for many natural-haired enlisted women. She also said that her hair is too thick to put into a bun and that twists like hers “make [hair] easy to take care of in the field.” She went on to explain that for “most Black women, their hair doesn’t grow straight down, it grows out. I’m disappointed to see the Army, rather than inform themselves on how Black people wear their hair, they’ve white-washed it all.”

Her petition, which urges the Obama administration to “allow professional ethnic hairstyles” in the military, was created soon after the new regulations were put into effect. It says that these rules are “racially biased” and show an apparent “lack of regard for ethnic hair.” So far, more than 5,700 people have shown that they agree by signing the petition. 

This is not the first time that natural hair has been deemed professionally inappropriate. It happened in the 1980s to women with cornrows who worked in the tourism industry. It happened at the start of this school year to little girls like 7-year-old Tiana Parker, who was told that her locks had to go if the straight-A student wanted to stay at her charter school. And now it is happening in the armed forces with this decision that all but says that women who are willing to defend their country should do so with straight hair, extensions, weaves or braids. Fortunately, thanks to women like Sgt. Jacobs, the battle seems to have just begun.

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(Photo: Courtesy of US Army)

Written by Ayana Byrd


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