Policing bodies: The larger discussion behind Black women’s hair in the military

Black hair is multidimensional, layered and complex.

We get a sense of this complexity with the recent media attention given to the military’s hairstyling guidelines that unfairly target Black women. The truth is, the military is not different from larger society’s expectations and constructions of idealized or “acceptable” presentations of hair. There’s a long history here, and it’s been covered before so I won’t rehash it.

There are multiple issues with the military’s styling guidelines; I will focus on two. First, the framing of the guidelines suggest that all women should be able to achieve the same hairstyling, regardless of ethnic/racial background or even more practical considerations, such as hair length and texture.

Army Black HairAccording to Troy Rolan, an Army spokesman, “The updates in appearance standards were crafted, in part, with the help of African-American female soldiers and are intended to clarify the professional look of soldiers.” Question: Is it logical for a few African American women to “clarify” how all African American women should wear their hair? I’m sure this goes without saying, but Black women are not all the same and neither is their hair. African American hair textures are quite diverse. And while I appreciate the military’s emphasis on neatness, their standards are contradictory. (Dread)Locs, for example, are neat and can be worn down. Yet they are banned according to military guidelines. What gives? As Imani Perry puts it, “While it is reasonable for the military to expect some degree of conformity and neatness in hairstyles, those expectations ought to take into account the variety of natural hair textures people have.”


Perhaps the larger issue in this debate feeds into the messaging we communicate to society and more importantly, to our young Black girls about hair and work-identity performance. Are we telling our young girls that in order to serve your country, you must manipulate or even chemically alter the state of your hair? Moreover, that the way you wear your hair may jeopardize your job or job security? Yet Black women are unfairly subject to this policing of their bodies, both in and outside the military confines. How are Black women in the workplace compelled to either conform to or perform Eurocentric standards of beauty in ways that suppress their identities and natural sense of self? When an employer mandates that hair be worn in a specific, “acceptable” manner, what does that mean? Does that mean that one cannot be their authentic selves?

Essentially, military officials may do well to first understand the complexities of how African American hair grows naturally, and then design guidelines that accommodate that diversity. Hairstyles should not be demeaned or subject to criticism simply because they are perceived to be different. Instead the approach to grooming standards – whether in corporate America or the military – might focus less on gendered-racial policing disguised as regulation and more on job performance.

Just a thought –