The Army Is Expanding Allowed Hairstyles For Women

May 23, 2021
Originally published on May 24, 2021 11:23 am

The Army is now allowing female soldiers to wear their hair in ponytails in all uniforms, in a change announced earlier this month.

It expands on hair guidelines announced in January. For years, many women in the Army were required to keep their hair in a tight bun.

The newest changes mean women can keep their hair either a bun, single ponytail, two braids or a single braid; locks, braids, twists or cornrows can come together in one or two braids or a ponytail; and braids or a ponytail can go as far down as the bottom of the shoulder blades.

There are exceptions on the length of the ponytail or braid for women doing tactical or physical training, the Army says.

In other changes this year, hair highlights are now allowed in natural colors, lipstick and nail polish allowed in "non-extreme" colors for women, earrings allowed for women in combat uniforms, and clear nail polish allowed for men.

Another newly approved ponytail, as shown in an Army photo.
U.S. Army

The Army acknowledged in announcing the latest update that repeatedly pulling hair into a tight bun could lead to hair loss.

Sgt. Nicole Pierce, a behavioral health noncommissioned officer stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, tells NPR's Weekend Edition that "tightening of the bun has really over the years pulled my hair out."

It added to postpartum hair loss she was experiencing. She also got headaches.

Now says she she's feeling the "happiness of just having the option of how we want to do our hair: bun, ponytail, braids. I'm just excited that we have options."

Staff Sgt. April Schacher, a flight operations specialist assigned to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, says the buns would make it difficult to wear a helmet during training. It "would affect how low the helmet lies on our eyes, so, especially with shooting our weapons, that did affect being able to see the target properly," she says.

The new guidelines expand the options for Black women's hair. In 2014, members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter to the secretary of defense over rules at the time about Black women's twists and braids. "African American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace," the lawmakers wrote. The Army first allowed some women to have some types of locks in 2017.

Maj. Faren Aimee Campbell, who works in Army logistics in Silver Spring, Md., experienced hair loss and damage from keeping her hair in a bun. So she chose to shave her head.

Completely shaved heads used to be against the rules that required hair to be at least 1/4 inch long. Not anymore.

"It's been a very freeing change within the regulation," Campbell says.

The latest update also "removes potentially offensive language used to describe several hairstyles," the Army said.

The Army notes that "professionalism" is important in how soldiers appear.

Maj. Terri Taylor, who is stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, says being professional isn't limited to one hairstyle. She used to use chemical relaxer in her hair, but now wears her hair in barrel rolls.

"Who's to say that a ponytail is not professional in appearance? Who's to say that locks are not professional in appearance? As long as you can properly wear your headgear and look professional in your uniform, I think that's what matters at the end of the day."

Gabriel Dunatov and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio story.

Correction: 5/24/21

In the audio version of this report, we incorrectly say that Fort Sam is in Houston. Fort Sam is an informal name for Fort Sam Houston, which is in San Antonio. Separately, the original digital story said the newest change applies to enlisted female soldiers. In fact, it applies to all female soldiers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For years, most women in the U.S. Army were required to wear their hair short or pinned back into a very tight bun. That time has now passed. Earlier this year, the Army began allowing women who spend most of their day away from the field freedom from the bun. And this month, the Army updated that change to allow female soldiers a little more freedom.

NICOLE PIERCE: I actually started to practice braiding my hair because I was so excited that we were going to be able to braid our hair and wear ponytails.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Sergeant Nicole Pierce, who works at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. She's been able to wear braids and ponytails since January, and now she's able to wear them untucked, so long as they don't go past her shoulder blades, thanks to the update to the updated grooming policy. Major Terri Taylor, stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, has enjoyed not having to chemically relax her hair because locks, braids, twists and cornrows can come together in one or two braids or a ponytail and still meet regulation.

TERRI TAYLOR: With locks, there is a style called barrel rolls in which our hair can be rolled back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Taylor usually pins up the ends, but now she can leave them free if she wants.

TAYLOR: Very professional in appearance, very neat and is very user friendly because that style can last at least two weeks. So that allows me to not have to manipulate my hair as much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No loose ends for Major Faren Aimee Campbell in Silver Spring, Md.

FAREN AIMEE CAMPBELL: Yeah, so in the Army, I'm pretty much known as the bald major. Within my unit, I'm the only bald female.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She suffered hair damage and loss after years wearing her hair in a tight bun, and she's not alone. Many Black women soldiers reported having that experience. Major Campbell says she's happy the U.S. Army allows her to be...

CAMPBELL: Bald by choice. I do shave my head, and it's been a very freeing change within the regulation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not just comfort here. Thick hair buns make it difficult for women to wear their helmets properly, making it low on the eyes, sometimes obscuring vision, a problem when you have to aim your weapon.

JENNIFER FRANCIS: We've all mentioned some of these things were long overdue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Sergeant Major Jennifer Francis of the U.S. Army Institute for Surgical Research at Fort Sam in Houston, Texas. She was on the panel that gave input to leadership about updating the grooming guidelines.

FRANCIS: We are an army, and we can't necessarily do everything civilians are doing. So we've got to figure out what's best for the Army and its people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Women now make up about 15% of the U.S. Army, and about a third of those are Black. Many see rules against certain hairstyles as outdated at best, discriminatory at worst. Major Terri Taylor, now set to retire after two decades of service, says how a soldier wears her hair when she's on base does not change her lethality or her professionalism.

TAYLOR: Who's to say that a ponytail is not professional in appearance? Who's to say that locks are not professional in appearance? As long as you can properly wear your headgear and look professional in your uniform, I think that's what matters at the end of the day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Army now joins the Navy, the Air Force and Space Force - yes, Space Force - when it comes to allowing loose ponytails.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this report, we incorrectly say that Fort Sam is in Houston, Texas. Fort Sam is an informal name for Fort Sam Houston, which is in San Antonio, Texas.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.