When Lacey Thompson heard about the U.S. Air Force’s new grooming regulations, she felt relieved.
No longer will she have to tightly wrap her braids to fit under her flight helmet. Under new policies, she can wear her two braids down as long as they don’t extend beyond a certain point. Previously, women in the Air Force were required to secure their hair so it did not reach past their collar.
The 20-year-old-model-turned-active-duty-aircraft-loadmaster says she has been experiencing hair loss at her hairline and at the base of her neck after two years of having to meet the standards.
Thompson’s hair troubles are common, the branch said in a news release announcing the changes. The new standards are based on feedback from thousands of Air Force servicewomen who said that the grooming codes have caused damaged hair, migraines and hair loss. Just days after the Air Force’s new grooming standards were made public, the Army announced its updated grooming policies. While locs, twists, braids and ponytails were previously allowed, there were several length and dimension requirements, which are now more flexible, according to a news release. The new standards also allow for some hair highlights and nail polish.
With the new standards, Thompson said, “I don’t have to worry about putting the bun up and taking it down when I get off the plane.”
The new grooming standards are a step toward the armed services recognizing the diversity of service members while also pushing forward different ideas of professionalism, current and retired service members said.
Women are about 16 percent of the enlisted forces and about 19 percent of the officer corps. Black women contribute significantly to those totals, according to data from the Council on Foreign Relations.
The changes provide Black women with more hairstyling options that are beneficial to their overall hair health while widening the lens of what is deemed socially appropriate and professional, said Kelli Richardson Lawson, founder and chief executive of Joy Collective, a marketing firm that’s worked to end race-based hair discrimination.
The Air Force and Army “are doing what they should be doing, which is to ensure that we have freedom to wear our hair how we choose to wear it,” she said.
That kind of advocacy is partly why there are changes happening in other parts of the military today, Richardson Lawson said.
Army Capt. Whennah Andrews, 33, was a key figure in getting locs to be considered suitable for grooming in 2017, a regulation that the U.S. Navy would also go on to adopt.
“I would have to say this is probably the biggest change we’ve seen with uniform policy in terms of how progressive it is,” she said.
Andrews says she would often wear wigs to cover her tresses because she thought it was easier to maintain what she thought was a professional appearance — a mind-set that changed when she attended Howard University, where she saw other Black women embrace their natural hair.
The environment motivated her to transition to natural styles.
Andrews and her bunned, black locs are now considered a model of how natural hair can be acceptable in uniform.
“Wearing your natural hair can be professional, she said. “You don’t have to take on a different standard of beauty. How you were created can be professional.”
As part of the new guidelines, the Air Force will allow braids or a ponytail with some bulk and the Army will permit women to sport ponytails if they’re unable to place their hair in a bun.
Pam Wilson, an Army veteran who served for 32 years and the co-founder of International Association of Military Women of Color, said hair matters have always been an issue for women serving their country, especially women with textured hair.
Wilson said it can be hard for women on bases to find the products they need to care for their hair, an issue that’s often further complicated once a person is deployed.
While she says there is a still a lot to address — how various headwear will be accounted for or how men who would like to wear twists, locs and braids will be included in the conversation — she thinks the new policies are a signal of change.
Jennifer Dane, an Air Force veteran and executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, agrees that there need to be more conversations going forward about how to expand the guidelines for men, adding that the Army and Air Force decisions will have implications for other branches of the military.
“Women are a good starting point,” she said.
Wilson, who rocks purple tresses in her retirement (something she couldn’t do in service), said the focus needs to be more on how the job is performed and not how someone looks performing it.