Air Force to Allow Female Airmen to Wear Longer Braids, Ponytails

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Illustration of hair regulations for female Airmen.
Beginning in February 2021, female Airmen will be able to wear their hair in up to two braids or a single ponytail with bulk not exceeding the width of the head and length not extending below a horizontal line running between the top of each sleeve inseam at the under arm through the shoulder blades. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Corey Parrish)

The U.S. Air Force is expanding its approved hairstyle options for female service members, allowing them to wear their hair in two braids or a single braid or ponytail that extends as far as the bottom of the shoulderblades, according to new guidance issued Thursday.

Beginning next month, women can wear these styles as long as they do not "exceed the width of the head" and the length doesn't continue past the bottom of the uniform's short sleeves, according to an example photo accompanying a news release.

Women will also be able to wear bangs that touch their eyebrows, but not cover their eyes.

Previous policies permitted a ponytail, small locs, twists or braids -- but they could extend no farther than the bottom of the uniform collar.

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"This decision is a commitment to supporting the 'Airmen We Need' [initiative] and sustaining the culture and environment of excellence that will continue to make the Air Force an attractive career choice for airmen and families," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said in the release. "I'm thankful for the feedback and research conducted from a number of women leaders, the Women's Initiative Team, the Air Force uniform board, and our joint teammates."

Brown first teased the possibility of allowing women to wear additional hairstyles while in uniform in August.

The changes are part of a series of updates to the service's dress and appearance policy aimed at creating a more inclusive culture, officials have said.

Thousands of women provided feedback through the Women's Initiative Team, which has been instrumental in encouraging change for outdated or restrictive policies.

Other services allow women to wear ponytails, but only in very limited settings. The Marine Corps in 2019 authorized women with medium-length hair to wear a "half ponytail" hairstyle during physical training. And women in the Army can put braids, cornrows or twists into a ponytail while they PT; the service is weighing changes to its appearance and grooming standards, set to debut in coming days.

The Navy gives the most latitude: While ponytails had previously been authorized only for PT uniforms, it amended the rule in 2018 to include locks or ponytails while wearing working uniforms.

The Air Force's latest guidance also applies to the Space Force until it develops its own policy, the release states.

The service's example photo shows that the hair should not fall beyond "a horizontal line running between the top of each sleeve inseam at the under arm through the shoulder blades," according to the instruction.

"In addition to the health concerns we have for our airmen, not all women have the same hair type, and our hair standards should reflect our diverse force," said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass. "I am pleased we could make this important change for our women service members."

The service says it wants airmen to reach out to their unit safety offices to be sure they can wear the new styles in compliance with safety and security protocols for their jobs.

"Members must adhere to current occupational safety, fire and health guidance, and mishap prevention procedures emphasizing when and how to mitigate the potential for injury from hair of varying lengths around machinery, equipment, power transmission apparatus or moving parts," the release states.

The Air Force is also considering a new beard option for male airmen and will hold a review board into the matter in the near future, the release adds.

In June, the Air Force's surgeon general approved a five-year waiver allowing male airmen with a chronic inflammatory skin condition to grow beards. The condition, known as Pseudofolliculitis Barbae, or PFB, causes razor bumps and painful ingrown beard hair; it commonly affects Black men.

As a result, airmen no longer must request a beard exemption on an annual basis, and the change "allows them to more readily present a neat, clean, and professional image," the service said at the time.

The Air Force already has a comprehensive process for airmen to request waivers for religious apparel such as hijabs or turbans or facial hair worn for religious reasons.

And in September, the service announced it had begun allowing both male and female airmen to grow their hair out a bit longer.

Men can now grow their hair up to two inches from their scalp, an extension from the previous mandate of 1 1/4 inches; women's allowable length increased from 3 1/2 inches to 4 inches, officials said at the time.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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