Andrea M. Peters is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, an engineer officer and currently an instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She is a West Point graduate and recent graduate of the University of Miami, with a doctorate in industrial engineering focused on human factors
In 1998, when I was a new cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point, I remember marching back from Beast Barracks in a rather disheveled and unkempt manner due to Cadet Basic Training and the lack of hair supplies in the field.
At that time, the regulation illustration showed a white woman with her hair uniformly laying down and pulled to the back of her head in a bun. Women of color were not directed by regulation to perm their hair but, as the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words." 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.
Thus, as soon as I possibly could, I had a friend perm my hair. 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. The relaxer burns the scalp, often leaving sores or irritated, tender skin. But this was all we had to meet the service regulation and the desire to look professional, "squared away" and "beautiful" at the Academy and in the Army.
In the 21 years since then, some things have changed. The Army regulation was updated in 2014 and then officially revised in 2015 to allow women to wear twists, locs and varying types of braids, along with a few more updates. Women are now embracing their natural beauty and loving the hair that grows from their scalps. Or are they? The answer is not clear-cut.
I'll start with the positive changes. I witnessed the beauty and love for one's hair firsthand at a Pride, Excellence, Regulations, and Mentorship (P.E.R.M.) Party that took place Aug. 18, 2019, in the Cadet Beauty Shop at West Point.
Pride overtook my thoughts as I looked at these women who were stepping outside stereotypes and embracing their beauty and sisterhood in an environment that does not often encourage this among Black women. Some were natural, some had braids, some had perms or another style.
The purpose of this event was and is to afford Black women the opportunity to build community by offering and receiving advice from other women of varying ranks and ages pertaining to race, gender, climate, hard conversations, desires, dreams and so much more. The only objectives were to be accepted, be heard and, honestly, to be loved and cared for through hair and Army standards education and grooming, if desired or needed.
But here's the negative side of this engagement: Why would something like this be needed in this day and age? It is because most leaders are still very ignorant about Army Regulation (AR) 670-1 and Department of the Army Pamphlet (DA PAM) 670-1 Chapter 3 Section 1-2, which covers hair and fingernail standards and grooming policies. These policies directly affect every soldier in the Army, but they often adversely impact Black women.
For example, instead of seeking understanding of the regulation and of the Black soldier in question, it seems to be easier for some leaders to make improper corrections, or to find another Black person to make the correction. Additionally, though the regulation is strides ahead of what it was when I was a brand-new lieutenant back in 2002, there are still areas needing change if the Army's desire is to be inclusive and to attract those representative of our American society.
However, the Army is certainly not alone in this lack of understanding or acceptance of Black hair, as there are still 47 states with discriminatory laws against ethnic hairstyles. This is why Black women begin to dislike and, in some cases, hate their hair.
The result of the lack of leadership education and knowledge of Black hair is a sort of targeting that creates undue stress and, usually, a large hair care expense in hopes of blending in with other soldiers -- or at least finding a proper style that will last months so that they do not have to worry about being justly or unjustly "called out."
The Army Regulation guidelines add to this stress due to faulty language such as "faddish," "natural," "professional," "commander's discretion," etc., without properly educating leaders or defining terms.
This leaves a lot of subjectivity to a majority population who do not understand Black hairstyles, the maintenance costs, and the time it takes to professionally style hair or perform daily styling.
A few more areas of the regulation that could stand to change and the reasons why:
- Remove the quarter-inch minimum for short hair standards. It should be the woman's choice to be bald or not, especially when some of the military's elite schools, such as Ranger school, mandate shaving the head for health and safety purposes, therefore placing women out of regulation.
- Allow hair sponging as an authorized technique for short hair as long as the waves/curls are uniform and neat. This would allow women in the "in-between stage" to wear their hair more professionally so they are not forced to perm their hair to stay within regulation.
- Specify that hair should be one uniform color from root to tip, but consideration should be given when hair roots grow out -- not to exceed 1.5 inches. Having some flexibility would allow women to plan ahead with their coloring and to take into account training and deployments without stressing about root exposure.
- Remove the volume rule of 2 inches for medium-length hair, but specify that the hair should lay as close to the scalp as possible to limit interference with the proper wearing of headgear. This specification will once again keep women from feeling like they must perm their hair or cut it completely off because they have thick tresses.
Though Black women have not always had a voice, 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, and it is time that society and the Army understand and embrace this truth.
-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, DOD, or the U.S. Government.
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