Earlier this year, some of the U.S. military branches shocked the natural hair community with their bans on certain hairstyles frequently worn by black female soldiers.
Of course, this caused immense backlash from several people, not just members of the Department of Defense. The main reason for backlash was that the prohibition appeared to be centered on the grooming of black women with natural hair, which dances too closely with discrimination.
Even small afros were deemed unacceptable. Basically, some of the leaders of the nation’s uniformed services didn’t understand that kinky and curly hair textures grow OUT, not DOWN, so some manipulation to make natural hair appear more “tame” for the workplace is necessary. Some guidelines described unacceptable styles with words like “matted” and “unkempt,” like only natural kinky and curly hair can look matted and unkempt.
A Time article centering on the controversy noted that U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said after a 3 month review (and plenty of fiery criticism), the three services relaxed their ban to refrain from looking racially unsympathetic to black women in the military. Two-strand twists and several types of braids sizes are now acceptable in the U.S. Army and Air Force. A statement further noted that these services understand that “certain hairstyles worn by women of color are often necessary to meet…unique needs and acknowledges that these hairstyles do not result in or reflect less professionalism or commitment to high standards required to serve within our Armed Forces.”
The controversy surrounding the initial decision to ban natural hair styles came with plenty of attention. A short segment poking fun at the ignorance of the DOD’s knowledge of black hair was featured on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. “Operation Black Hair” was a hilarious sketch! Comedienne Jessica Williams describes the only approved natural hairstyles the military allowed at the time were microbraids (time consuming to install and costly), relaxers (burn your scalp), cornrolls (which have to be redone constantly) and wigs and sow-ins. She takes a gentleman by the name of Lt. CDR. Thomas Cheever (ret.) to black haircare salons to educate him on the tedious process women of color go through to meet not just the military standards of grooming but in everyday life.
Bottom line, the new standards were unfair to soldiers of color. In fact, any standard that clearly calls out one group of people is unjust. The U.S. military made the right move in improving their standards for natural hair care.