Pentagon changes restrictions on hairstyles for women in service

The Pentagon has changed hair grooming standards to be more culturally sensitive after members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised concerns with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about “offensive and biased” language and “discriminatory rules” on Army hairstyle policies.

Hagel announced the changes following a three-month “thorough review” of all Defense Department policies on service members’ hairstyles, he said in a letter this week responding to the lawmakers’ concerns.

The defense secretary wrote that language such as “matted and unkempt” were removed from Air Force and Army hair grooming standards, and the Army, Navy and Air Force have authorized additional hairstyles.

The Air Force replaced the name “dreadlocks” to “locs” in grooming regulations, and authorized two-strand twists, French Twists and Dutch braids, said Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Erika Yepsen.

“The point is to uphold our standards of neatness, safety, uniformity in a culturally sensitive way,” she said.

The defense secretary sent letters to each of the 16 women lawmakers who signed an April letter targeting Army hair grooming regulations and language. U.S. Reps. Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus and a Dayton native, and Marcia L. Fudge, D-Warrensville Heights near Cleveland, were among caucus members who criticized prior grooming standards as unfair.

Fudge, chair of the caucus, thanked Hagel for responding to the criticisms.

“These changes recognize that traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are often necessary to meet our unique needs, and acknowledges that these hairstyles do not result in or reflect less professionalism or commitment to the high standards required to serve within our Armed Forces,” she said in a statement.

Beatty was unavailable for comment.

Caucus concerns

In an April letter to Hagel from the women of the Congressional Black Caucus, the delegation took issue with an Army regulation that “specifies hairstyles often worn by many African American women, and other minority women, as unauthorized. Though we understand the intent of the updated regulation is to ensure uniformity in our military, it is seen as discriminatory rules targeting soldiers who are women of color with little regard to what is needed to maintain their hair.”

The letter noted the Army responded to criticism “by saying it applies to all soldiers regardless of race, and they are meant to protect their safety. However the use of words like unkempt and matted when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased,” the congressional lawmakers said.

“The assumption that individuals wearing these hairstyles cannot maintain them in a way that meets the professionalism of Army standards indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity conducive to creating a tolerant environment for minorities,” the lawmakers said.

An online petition to the White House had gathered more than 17,000 signatures by April demanding the regulations be rescinded, according to media reports.

Grooming changes

This week, the Army authorized temporary two-strand twists, increased the size of authorized braids, cornrows and twists, and removed a hair spacing requirement. It also OK’d wearing ponytails during physical training.

Hagel also noted: The Navy determined it had no offensive language on hairstyles, but removed dated terms and descriptions on a website, such as “Twist hairstyles are not authorized because they fall within the guidelines of being faddish.”

The Navy has authorized a two-strand twist. Multiple braids may hang freely if above the collar and covering the entire head.

The Marine Corps updated its policy last November, and recently determined that it had no “derogatory or discriminatory language” in uniform regulations, Hagel wrote. A special uniform board this summer will consider expanding authorized hairstyles.

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