Why is the U.S. Army Biased Against African-American Women’s Hair?
In the early 1970s, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. Activists focused on giving women freedom to choose their own paths and have equal access to opportunities traditionally reserved for men. One of the major battlegrounds was corporate America where women fought to go past the reception desk and into the corner office. As the corporate culture changed, so did the idea of what was considered professional behavior. Men still dominated the board room and, ultimately, the employee manual.
When it came to what to wear, women were forced to emulate the male style, but still dress as men felt women should. Suits were generally of the typical gray, black, or blue colors. Women would be required to wear skirts – below the knee – and shoes that were appropriate in heel height. Makeup had to be “natural” and hair had to be done in a conservative manner, which generally meant pulled into a bun or otherwise not worn below the shoulders.
In the decades since, more women are in the boardroom and corporate culture has adjusted accordingly. Women wear suits, dresses and pants with vivid colors. They are tailored to fit their body and the shoes are fabulous. However, as the workplace has become more diverse, conservative work environments have still been slow to adjust to the needs of many women – especially women of color.
Last month, the U.S. Army released its latest appearance guidelines. Like all organizations, the military has rules as to grooming and uniform. Soldiers must always maintain a professional appearance while on duty. Guidelines cover everything from uniform to jewelry – including piercings, tattoos, and hairstyles. The new guidelines on hairstyles have created an uproar that has been heard all the way to the halls of Congress.
The updated regulations have specified which hairstyles, for women and men, are authorized. The banned styles are predominately worn by African-American women, especially those that do not choose to chemically alter their natural hair. Furthermore, the accepted styles would be difficult for black women with natural hair to maintain, especially when deployed in areas that lack the modern conveniences, and time, needed to be considered regulation.
Black hair is naturally curly and the texture varies. Generally, however, the hair grows up and out, not down as straight hair does. For hair that has a courser texture and a tighter curl, sometimes referred to “kinky,” it requires a great deal of effort and varied techniques to maintain when not altered chemically or thermally. As a result, many black women choose hairstyles that can be worn for longer periods of time, such as twists, braids or cornrows. These are especially useful for black female soldiers that are deployed in war zones or in the field for extended periods of times.
These are also the styles that have been modified or banned by the Army.
While the updated regulations apply to all women, many seem to ignore the unique challenges for black hair. Female soldiers cannot wear hairstyles that are longer than the bottom edge of the collar than their uniform and it must be of a uniform length. Essentially, women with long hair will need to pull their hair into a bun, which must be secured, not extend further than three inches from the scalp, and not lopsided. It also has to be secured with an authorized accessory, which means that huge hairclips are not allowed and scrunchies must match the soldier’s hair color.
While all of this seems reasonable, considering the needs of the required headgear, a lot of this is not easy to comply with for black women. Curls that are thick and tight do not pull easily into a bun or stay in place without altering the natural state of the hair. The new regulation requiring only two braids and that they lay flat would be impossible for anyone with thick hair, especially if it doesn’t naturally lay flat. While cornrows are still allowed, they must be small and start from the front of the scalp, a style that isn’t easy to achieve without the help of someone else.
Black female soldiers are speaking out against the regulations, claiming that the standards are racially biased and ignore the complexities of black hair. While they agree that soldiers need to maintain a professional appearance, the new regulations are forcing a definition of professionalism that excludes black women. As one soldier noted on the Facebook page of the Sgt. Major of the Army, “As far as the twists, that really limits females with curly/kinky hair. I can’t simply pull my hair back due to excessive knotting. I proudly wear twists in a professional manner every day and only took them down on the weekends. It makes it very difficult for ethnic females.”
The issue is not unique to the Army. Studies have shown that black people who do not look a certain way are often ignored for promotions, if they are hired at all. While things like a blue mohawk (which is also banned by the Army, by the way) is generally considered unprofessional, the hairstyle is a choice and one that doesn’t occur naturally. For black women that wear their hair in a natural state and appropriately groomed, it is still considered unprofessional. This creates an environment where talent is being ignored simply because of outdated standards of professionalism, which are based on the ideals of white men.
Black lawmakers in Congress have called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reconsider the guidelines. There is also a petition to the White House started by National Guard member Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs in hopes of having them address the issue. There is also a Care2 petition here. While they wait for the response, the Army has noted that they are providing some leeway with compliance. The regulation allows for a waiver program that grants exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
Of course, a woman could also decide to shave her head completely, but that is banned by the Army as well – but only for women.