The U.S. army has strict rules about the physical appearance of its members, even about the kind of umbrella they can carry. But when it recently issued new rules for hairstyles, it faced a backlash from black women who said they were offensive and biased.

Now, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has responded to the brewing controversy. On Tuesday, he ordered a review of not only the army’s hairstyle policies but also those of the navy, marines, and air force. They have three months to examine whether they fairly apply to black women. Within 30 days, they must change any offensive language.

The debate began last month when the army released updated grooming guidelines that include authorized and unauthorized hairstyles for both men and women. Men, for example, can’t have sideburns that extend beyond the bottom of the ear and they cannot be pointed in shape. No heads can be shaved into a “landing strip” formation.

For women, hairstyles “may not be eccentric or faddish and will present a conservative, professional appearance.”  That means long hair, for example, must be pulled back, a bun can’t extend more than seven centimetres from the head and the elastic or tie must be a similar colour as the hair. 

military-hairstyles-race

This photo, taken from a U.S. army training presentation, shows an unauthorized hairstyle for female soldiers. (U.S. Army)

Bangs can’t extend past eyebrows and parts must be in a straight line, no zigzags or curves. Any hairstyles that interfere with headgear fitting snugly aren’t allowed. Put away the “lacy scrunchies” and barrettes with “butterflies, flowers, sparkles,” and ponytails are only OK during physical training exercises.

But here’s where the rules didn’t sit well with some women: hairstyles considered to be “faddish and exaggerated” and therefore not allowed include hair worn in a twisted, rope-like appearance, multiple braids that are not in a straight line, and dreadlocks — defined as any “matted, twisted, or locked coils or ropes of hair (or extensions).” Braids and cornrows that are “unkempt or matted” are not allowed.

Some women disappointed by rules

Jasmine Jacobs told the Military Times she was at a loss with what to do with her hair given the rules. “I’m disappointed to see the army, rather than inform themselves on how black people wear their hair; they’ve white-washed it all,” she told the online military news source.

The army says the guidelines were revised in consultation with female military members, including African-American women.

But in Jacobs’s opinion, the rules are “racially biased, and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent.” Jacobs said styling hair into a twist is a go-to option for black army women in the field.

Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, authors of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this week saying America has always had trouble with black hair and the army is just the latest example. 

Some rules on the appearance of U.S. army members:

  • Eyelash extensions are not allowed.
  • Lipstick shades must be natural and not eccentric.
  • Men are not authorized to wear nail polish, women can only wear clear shades.
  • Tattoos are not allowed on the head, face, neck, hands.
  • No gold caps or jewels embedded in teeth.
  • Trendy sunglasses are not allowed and glasses must not be worn on top of the head.
  • Soldiers may carry a plain, black umbrella only.

“The current policy is the equivalent of a black majority military telling its thousands of white soldiers that they are required to have dreadlocks or Afros,” they wrote.

A petition on the White House website, started by Jacobs, asked that the rules be revisited. It has collected about 17,000 supporters, still short of the 100,000 required for an official response.

But the matter caught the attention of women in the Congressional Black Caucus. Sixteen of them signed a letter sent to Hagel on April 10 urging him to reconsider the standards.

'Offensive' and 'biased' language

“African-American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace,” it read. “Understand that these standards should shift based on each community’s unique and practical needs … We believe the army’s updated rules and the way they are written fail to recognize this reality.”

The language “matted” and “unkempt” when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of colour are "offensive" and "biased," the women told Hagel. It makes an assumption that women with certain hairstyles can’t maintain them in a professional manner and it indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity, the letter stated.

Hagel appears to have listened to the women and ordered the reviews to ensure the policies are “fair and respectful of our diverse force, while also meeting our military service’s requirements,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

Hagel’s prompt response won him some appreciation from Marcia Fudge, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who told the New York Times it showed a commitment to ensuring all individuals feel welcome in the military. The congresswomen who signed the letter are happy — for now — but the story isn’t over yet.

“I’m pleased that the secretary responded in such a forthright manner,” Representative Barbara Lee said in the same article. But she added, “We have to be vigilant until we have a final conclusion.”