Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Natural Hair vs. Military Regulations

Laurie and Debbie say:

Since the forthcoming military regulations on hairstyle and grooming were leaked in March, we’ve seen a lot of discussion of the hairstyle limitations for women, and especially how those limitations affect African-American women. The regulations in general are much more specific and more limiting than previous regulations.  For example, according to Army Times, “Soldiers will likely face punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice … Hair grooming standards will become more restrictive and better defined. …”

The regulations for men are, as military regulations about men’s hair traditionally are, homogeneous and designed to suppress difference. Military regulations have always been super-precise; it’s one way “military discipline” is enforced.

All of the regulations, for men and women, are focused on being “professional.” Outside of the military, “professional” is a profoundly racist and classist word; inside the military, says our friend the military historian, it’s not much different: “professional” is code for looking white and middle-class, and especially for not having any hairstyle or grooming choices that show up as outside the middle-class norm.

three unauthorized hairstyles

The new regulations for black women, however, take everything steps further in the wrong direction. Sesali Bowen at Feministing lays it out in no uncertain terms:

Cultural sensitivity has to come from some sort of understanding. This is where these regulations — and even some of the criticisms of them — are truly lacking. Reading up on this story, there are several things that I would like to clarify.

  • The rule requiring the “bulk of hair” to not exceed 2″ clearly does not take into account shrinkage, which can take 10″ hair to 3″ with just a few spritzes of water. Most black girls also have these things called “edges” which account for a variation in hair length.
  • “Dreadlocks” is a historically offensive term to many people who wear them.
  • While it’s cute that folks are thinking of the potential damage that braids and weaves can cause, black women who wear and prepared these styles know that wearing weave can actually be a great protective style and help grow your hair.
  • And the most important point about weave: it isn’t cheap. (Well, some weave is cheap but that kind of weave certainly wouldn’t survive a long tour of duty or even basic training.) If wearing weave is the only way to meet these regulations for many black women, that represents a significant additional expense. Unless you can do it yourself or have some kind of hook up on salon services, you will also have to pay for the installation of said weave. Weave has to be maintained. Weave has to be removed (so that you can treat your real hair) and re-installed. It simply isn’t a viable option for many of us.

While we knew some of this, we didn’t know all of it. And no one ever knows the consequences like the women whose hair is being regulated.

The bright spot in this culturally blind and insensitive story is the amount and range of pushback that black women in the Army, and their allies, are mounting.  Coverage of the issue has ranged from Time to Fox News and many other major media outlets, and often includes quotations like this one.

“I think that it primarily targets black women, and I’m not in agreement with it,” said Patricia Jackson-Kelley of the National Association of Black Military Women. “I don’t see how a woman wearing three braids in her hair, how that affects her ability to perform her duty in the military.”

It’s great to see widespread, determined opposition to the Army’s racist and culturally insensitive policies, and we wish these women luck in making change before the regulations are implemented.

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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