The military’s hair regulations are vestiges of this need to control women in the ranks.
Late last month, new regulations for grooming went into effect for soldiers. The Army now allows female troops to wear their hair in different ways.
The limitations that persist on female servicemembers’ hair lengths and styles aren’t entirely related to safety or combat effectiveness: They’re more about the Department of Defense’s need to manage the appearances of enlisted women in paternalistic ways.
Hair and the military have a long history, for good reason. Armies of the ancient world prohibited beards and long hair because they made it easier for enemies to grab and kill them. Shaven and short-haired men were harder to catch.
But the nature of warfare has changed in the last millenia. Attacks are launched from opposite sides of the globe. Hand-to-hand combat is increasingly rare and it comes with advanced protective gear now.
Short hair, braids or wigs were acceptable for male soldiers in the early days of the Republic, not because of military permissiveness, but because barbers weren’t readily available. It was mostly after WWI that the U.S. military clung to the short haircuts and clean faces for men. They fit better under gas masks and improved unit hygiene. Even apart from how it looks, the first haircut is a rite of passage of enlistment.
The relatively relaxed regulations for the first women who joined—they could wear their hair in any way “natural and becoming” so long as it was above their shirt collar—had less to do with women’s liberation than it did an exact recipe that men in leadership positions had for femininity. “The Army wants you to be attractive and feminine” is how they put it, but control of women’s appearance is what they wanted.
Down to the color of lipstick, the military has rather exacting standards that are more about conventional ideas of attractiveness than making them better servicemembers. In fact, if anything, it added labor to women servicemembers by tasking them with maintenance that men didn’t have to worry about. The message that “Beauty on duty has a duty to beauty!” appeared in makeup advertisements. As if the women who first infiltrated an all-male military didn’t face enough pressure, a soldier wrote in a 1941 Vogue article, “To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.”
The hair regulations are vestiges of this need to control women in the ranks. The best proof that these rules have nothing to do with a woman’s ability to discharge her duties is the variation of rules between branches.
The Air Force is the most liberal; because their standards were updated last month as well, female Airmen (a problematic label if there ever was one) can wear one or two braids/ponytail that can’t extend past their armpits. Marines face the most restrictions: Long hair can be worn only in a bun.
Exceptions abound for men, especially for religious reasons. Male troops can apply for a waiver for “relaxed grooming standards” but these are usually limited to special operations forces embedded in regions where they need to blend in with local cultures. If longer hair length imperiled them, the Department of Defense wouldn’t allow it.
To think that a woman can’t decide how to wear her hair on the job denies her competence. Women know what to do with their hair to be the most effective employees they can be; no one needs to tell them that a certain length ponytail is better than another. In fact, as any woman knows, sometimes longer hair is more likely to submit to the insisted-upon bun.
“To think that a woman can’t decide how to wear her hair on the job denies her competence.”
I went through this myself. When I started my career as a Marine officer, I honored every rule—I tightly greased, jelled and sprayed my hair into place to abide by the rules. But then I saw some senior women wearing their hair in less structured ways. So I traded the desperate sculpture that adorned my head—which took an inordinate amount of my time and attention—for an occasional braid. And I still did my job the same as when it wasn’t in a braid.
The rules can be onerous for many women. Many women lost hair by tying it back tightly to meet the grooming standards; that was the impetus for these regulation changes. Thick buns make helmets fit poorly, making it harder to see.
It also came about because we, as a society, are becoming more enlightened about Black women’s hair. Black women account for 29 percent of all active-duty women, compared to the 16.8 percent of enlisted men who are Black. Seven states and 16 cities have passed legislation—the CROWN Act—to eliminate race-based hair discrimination and permit natural hair, braids, locs, twists and knots in the workplace and public schools because it’s oppressive to Black women to police their bodies this way.
Of course, “Wacky Hair Day” shouldn’t happen in the military; some styles are too extreme to be serious. Being unkempt is disrespectful to one’s colleagues in any profession but especially in the armed forces where discipline protects people rather than punishes them. There are limits to what responsible military women will wear; those in aviation or maintenance know when safety is a concern.
And that’s exactly my point. The limitations on women’s hair that remain aren’t practical; they’re patriarchal. If they’re entrusted to guard national security, even in a small way, then they should be trusted with another inch of ponytail if that helps them feel better about themselves and improves their job performance. Whether they choose a bald head, a chignon, a natural afro or a long braid, women in the workplace know what they’re doing with their hair.
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