Hagel Promises to Reconsider 'Discriminatory' Military Hair Regulations

WASHINGTON — Some legislators are going to battle with the Defense Department over Army uniform regulations they say discriminate against African-American women wearing their hair naturally.


The Army issued AR 670-1 changes in a 57-page directive in mid-March addressing male and female grooming standards, fingernails (“males may not wear nail polish”), jewelry, tattoos, and other  items for clarification.

The male standards focused on strips of hair left on otherwise shaved heads, sideburn length (no lower than the bottom of the ear opening), and how wide a regulation mustache can be (not up into the nose and not past the corners of the mouth).

The female standards clarify rules for short and medium hair length, and stipulate that the “bulk” of the hair can’t extend more than two inches from the scalp. If long hair is tied back in a bun, that can protrude a maximum of three inches from the scalp.

The photos accompanying the guidelines about unauthorized hair include an Afro as an example of hair that’s too bulky. Dreadlocks and twists are also shown as non-regulation.

Multiple braids are authorized as long as they’re uniform and “tightly interwoven to present a neat, professional, well-groomed appearance.” They can be worn loose if they meet the collar-length requirement for medium-length hair or pulled back if longer. Tight, neat cornrows are also allowed, and hair extensions are authorized if they conform to natural hair.

In early April, the women of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling the regulations “discriminatory rules targeting soldiers who are women of color with little regard to what is needed to maintain their natural hair.”


“African American women have often been required to meet unreasonable norms as it relates to acceptable standards of grooming in the workplace,” stated the letter, led by CBC chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio). “Understand that these standards should shift based on each community’s unique and practical needs. New cultural norms and trends naturally change, ensuring that no person feels targeted or attacked based on his or her appearance. We believe the Army’s updated rules and the way they are written fail to recognize this reality.”

“Army officials have responded to criticism of the regulation by saying it applies to all soldiers regardless of race, and that they are meant to protect their safety. However the use of words like ‘unkempt’ and ‘matted’ when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased. The assumption that individuals wearing these hairstyles cannot maintain them in a way that meets the professionalism of Army standards indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity conducive to creating a tolerant environment for minorities.”

The caucus women “strongly” encouraged Hagel to “reconsider the updated regulation as it relates to grooming standards and how it allows individuals from every community to feel proud and welcome to serve in our nation’s Armed Forces.”

On Tuesday, the CBC received a response from Hagel. “I want to assure you that, while none of the Army’s revised grooming and appearance policies were designed or intended to discriminate or disparage against any Service Members, I take your concerns very seriously,” the secretary wrote.


Hagel said he ordered the deputy secretary of Defense and the service secretaries to each review their policies within the next 30 days and “revise any offensive language.” Over the next three months, they will have to review the content of the policies to “ensure standards are fair and respectful of our diverse force, while also meeting our military services’ requirements.”

Hagel added that he’ll review the recommendations and “make appropriate adjustments to DoD policy.” He also offered to brief the CBC on the progress of the reviews.

Fudge lauded it as a “thoughtful response” from the Defense secretary.

“Members of the CBC appreciate Secretary Hagel for his prompt response to our letter and for seriously considering our concerns,” she said in a statement. “The Secretary’s response affirms his commitment to ensuring all individuals are welcomed and can continue to be proud of serving within our Armed Forces.”

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby confirmed the reviews will be “specifically about appropriate service member hairstyles and, in particular, about hairstyles worn by African-American women in the military.”

After Hagel’s announcement, a group of House members led by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) urged the Pentagon to reconsider implementation of the policy while awaiting the outcome of service reviews.

“This regulation unnecessarily discriminates against African American and other minority women. While we appreciate that the intent of the regulation is to ensure uniformity in our military, we believe that the impact of this discriminatory policy will be to lower morale and make it more difficult for all Americans to proudly serve their country,” states the letters, signed by Reps. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Andre Carson (D-Ind.), Marc Veasey (D-Texas), and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.).


The lawmakers argued that the prohibition of dreadlocks “against the scalp or free-hanging” ranks among the words in the regulations that further “an offensive and biased perception that ethnic hair that is ‘natural,’ or not straightened with heat or chemicals, is somehow unruly, and must be carefully regulated.”

“While it is reasonable for the Department to expect some degree of conformity and neatness in hairstyles, those expectations must take into account the diversity and history of our country, and the variety of natural hair textures.… This updated regulation is offensive, biased, and divisive to thousands of our service members.”


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