The Army Is Planning a Major Overhaul of its Hair and Grooming Regulations

An intelligence analyst fixes her hair bun.
An intelligence analyst fixes her hair bun before putting on her body armor at a M203/M320 40 mm grenade launcher qualification range at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, March 17, 2014. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Marcus Fichtl)

This article by Haley Britzky originally appeared on Task & Purpose, a digital news and culture publication dedicated to military and veterans issues.

Senior Army leaders are discussing making long-awaited changes to hair and grooming regulations and they plan to announce the finalized changes in January 2021, Task & Purpose has learned.

The changes being discussed among Army leadership include allowing some women to wear ponytails in uniform and removing wording from the existing regulations found to be offensive or racist in an effort to "reflect the Army values and the Army's commitment to diversity and inclusion," according to slides obtained by Task & Purpose.

A series of recommendations were first presented earlier this month to a "review panel" made up of representatives from around the Army, including from Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), and the Army National Guard.

An Army official familiar with the panel said the majority of representatives were women.

The panel voted on the recommendations outlined in the slides; those recommendations have since been passed to Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston who is expected to sign off on them, and then deliver them to Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, for final approval. It's unclear which of the changes will be finalized and implemented in the new year.

Grinston teased that changes were coming on Twitter last week, saying hair is "absolutely" something the team leading the Army's Project Inclusion initiative were working on.

The recommendations were identified after a July directive from then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper which ordered a review of hairstyle and grooming policies for racial bias.

Hair regulations are meant to reinforce uniformity in the military, but many women — specifically Black women — have said that the stringent regulations don't take into account different textures and lengths of hair.

Earlier this year, Lt. Col. Andrea Peters, a Black instructor at West Point, wrote at that when she was a cadet, the regulation at the time included a photo which showed "a white woman with her hair uniformly laying down and pulled to the back of her head in a bun."

"That image reinforced the same European standard of professionalism and beauty that had become mine as a girl; the natural me was not good enough," Peters wrote.

She said she felt pressured to perm her hair in order to "look professional, 'squared away' and 'beautiful' at the Academy and in the Army."

"For those not familiar with textured hair, specifically a Black woman's hair, this means I was rushing to straighten my hair with a home no-lye relaxer made of calcium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide as the active ingredient," Peters wrote. "The relaxer burns the scalp, often leaving sores or irritated, tender skin."

The discussion about change comes amid an intense focus from service leaders on improving the Army culture and increasing diversity and inclusion within the force.

The issue of hair standards specifically was reignited on social media last week, with men and women alike calling for change and describing what they view as broken and antiquated policies that put unnecessary burdens on women who serve.

Nicole Kirschmann, a career Army civilian, said on her personal Twitter account that she believed the service should allow women to wear ponytails and take into consideration different textures and types of hair. Having "grooming standards that show sensitivity to the cultural and ethnic diversity already present in our Army would go a long way in 'walking the talk' about diversity and inclusion," she told Task & Purpose.

It seems some of those changes could be coming to soldiers at the beginning of 2021.

Currently, Army Regulation 670-1 — the most recent version of which was published in 2017 — categorizes women's hairstyles into three sections: short, medium, and long length.

According to the regulations, short hair is not longer than an inch or shorter than a 1/4 inch from the scalp; medium length hair is hair which "does not extend beyond the lower edge of the collar," but that is longer than an inch from the scalp; long hair is defined as that which does extend past the lower edge of the collar.

Long hair must be "neatly and inconspicuously fastened or pinned above the lower edge of the collar," according to the regulations.

But the recommendations presented to the panel this month recognize "frequent use of tight buns or ponytails" as a high-risk hairstyle category, and a slide detailing the risk of hair loss associated with tight hairstyles, such as Traction Alopecia, and how it affects Black women.

"Direct result of pulling hair tight," the slide says about traction alopecia. "Affects 1/3 of [African American] women who wear prolonged, tight hairstyles."

Another slide included the summary of a medical study published in 2016 titled "All hairstyles are not created equal: What the dermatologist needs to know about Black hairstyling practices and the risk of traction alopecia (TA)."

"Prevalent among Black women, traction alopecia (TA) is a type of hair loss that is often attributed to certain hairstyling practices," the summary says, mentioning the "limited literature on Black hairstyling methods" and the importance of "increasing the knowledge and understanding of these practices and their risk of causing TA."

The slides go on to list the psychological impacts of hair loss and how a person's quality of life is impacted by something like TA which can result in additional challenges like anxiety, depression, and poor body image.

The slides also recognize that some women "are unable to create a bun due to the length and/or texture of their hair," and the potentials changes would authorize them to wear ponytails "in any uniform."

"Allowing this modification will alleviate some strain to the scalp caused by mandatory bun for medium and long hair," the slides say.

The changes would also allow women to wear two hairstyles at once — "for example, locks or twists can be braided or twisted to the scalp," the slides say — and authorize them to wear a side twist or braid "to keep the hair neat," as long as it doesn't "impair the ability to wear authorized headgear and protective equipment."

While the existing regulation says that women's hair cannot be shorter than 1/4 inch from the scalp, the new regulations say that "it should be a woman's choice if she wants to have hair or not."

"This will also help to alleviate the stress and embarrassment of female soldiers who suffer from Alopecia or other medical conditions that causes hair loss or prevents growth," the document says. "This will help to increase health and wellness."

The new policy will also remove various words from the regulation that are offensive to some cultures, or have racist ties. In the facial hair section of the regulations, the word "Fu Manchu" will be removed, for example, as it "has been considered offensive to Asian Culture," the slides say.

"Dreadlocks" will be changed to "Locs," the slides go on to explain, because "the term dreadlocks has ties to the American Slavery experience."

The current regulations state that women's hairstyles "may not be eccentric or faddish and will represent a conservative, professional appearance." But the recommended changes would get rid of the words "eccentric" and "faddish," saying they "seem to target a specific demographic."

"The words 'extreme' and 'exaggerated' are sufficient when describing violations to the Grooming and Appearance Standard," the slides say.

Other recommendations in the slides include allowing women to wear approved earrings in the Army Combat Uniform in garrison, and allowing nail polish that does not "distinctly contrast with their complexion." The current regulation allows women to wear only clear polish or clear acrylic nails.

When asked by Task & Purpose why these issues were important, Sgt. Maj. Grinston said that they were important to him "because they're important to our soldiers."

"I'm constantly evaluating our policies to ensure that they meet the needs of the force," he said. "This is another way we are working to ensure that we put our people first."

And as Peters said at back in August, Black women "have not always had a voice," but "the one thing they have always controlled and taken pride in is their hair.

"This reality makes the topic of hair monumental in the eyes of Black women," Peters said. "And it is time that society and the Army understand and embrace this truth."

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