Army leaders announced Wednesday, 27 January, that they are loosening restrictions on various grooming and hairstyle rules, as service leaders try to address longstanding complaints, particularly from women.
The changes, which also expand allowances for earrings and hair highlights and dyes, are particularly responsive to women of various ethnicities and will allow greater flexibility for braids, twists, cornrows and other styles more natural for their hair.
Female soldiers can let their hair down and flash a little nail colour under new rules being approved by the army, but male soldiers will still have to shave.
The new regulations take effect in late February and come after months of study, in the wake of a directive by former defense secretary Mark Esper, who ordered a new review of military hairstyle and grooming policies last July. The review was part of a broader order to expand diversity within the military and reduce prejudice, in the wake of widespread protests about racial inequality last summer.
The Army announcement has been long-planned, but it came just days after the Pentagon’s first black defence secretary Lloyd Austin took over. Austin has vowed to try to root out racism and extremism in the ranks and foster more inclusion. Esper and many of the service leaders have also been taking steps to make the military more diverse, particularly in the higher ranks.
As an example, Esper last summer ordered that service member’s photos no longer be provided to promotion boards. Officials said studies showed that when photos are not included the outcomes for minorities and women improved.
On Tuesday, Army Sgt. Maj. Brian Sanders said that the panel recommending the new grooming changes considered a variety of factors, including cultural, health and safety issues. He said the tight hair buns previously required by the Army can trigger hair loss and other scalp problems for some women. And larger buns needed to accommodate thick or longer hair can make a combat helmet fit badly and potentially impair good vision.
At the same time, he said that changes, like allowing women in combat uniforms to wear earrings such as small gold, silver and diamond studs, let them feel like a woman inside and outside of the uniform.
He added, “At the end of the day, our women are mothers, they’re spouses, they’re sisters, they definitely want to be able to maintain their identity and that’s what we want to get after.
In many cases such as the earrings, the changes simply let female soldiers wear jewellery or hairstyles that are already allowed in more formal, dress uniforms, but were not allowed in their daily combat uniforms.
Army leaders said women will now be able to wear their hair in a long ponytail or braid and tuck it under their shirt. Sanders said that allowing that gives female soldiers, particularly pilots or troops at a firing range, greater ability to turn their head quickly, without the restraints that the buns created.
Female soldiers going through Ranger or special operations training get their heads shaved like male soldiers do. But when they leave training, their hair is too short, based on the Army’s previous minimum length requirements. With the new regulation, there will be no minimum length rules.