U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put the brakes on the Army’s new hairstyle guidelines Tuesday when he ordered a review of the changes.
The guidelines, which fall under a new regulation formally known as AR 670-1, ban hairstyles such as twists, large cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks.
The Pentagon says the rules are an effort to ensure uniformity. Opponents, however, say the guidelines are part of a cultural pressure for women in the military to conform to an unrealistic standard.
One of those people is Jasmine Jacobs, an Atlanta resident who served in Iraq in 2008 and 2009. Jacobs is leading an online protest to change the regulations. She was due to get out of the Georgia National Guard on May 15, but after she launched a petition on WhiteHouse.gov, the Army moved up her departure several weeks.
Jacobs, who avoids chemical straighteners, told GPB's On The Story she started the petition because she felt she was left with very few hairstyle choices.
“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to cause a raucous, or a riot, or anything. It was just that I was stripped of all my options of how I normally wore my hair in the military, which I felt was very professional,” said Jacobs. “So I felt like something had to be done because I had no options.” To Jacobs, the rules were impractical. “The way my hair is currently would be out of regulations if I was still in the military,” she said. “And I can wear my headgear just fine. I can wear my helmet just fine. I feel like it would actually be more cumbersome if I had to put on a wig or weave or any of the other hairstyles that are now authorized.” Jacobs says she’s not against the concept of uniformity. But the guidelines forced her to wear her hair in a straight style – a way in which her hair doesn’t naturally grow. She says that concept was insulting. “So it’s like saying ‘the way you naturally are isn’t authorized here’,” said Jacobs. Tarshia Stanley, chair of Spelman College’s English department, says the language banning “unkempt” or “matted” hair was insensitive. She says those words can be interpreted to mean “not straight.” “A definite disconnect and a cultural bias in many ways. Because the word “unkempt”, I’m not quite sure what that means. And it’s sweeping and I needed it to be more specific,” said Stanley to GPB. In early April, Army spokesman Troy Rolan told CNN the new guidelines were approved after being vetted by a focus group of black female soldiers. He also said the group was “led by an African-American female.” Jacobs, however, questions the validity of Rolan’s statement. “There are some other misconceptions within the regulations that lead me to believe that not many African-American females read the regulations before it was published,” said Jacobs. “There was such a lack of education about the subject that I think that either the focus group wasn’t listened to, or focus group wasn’t as diverse as they lead us to believe.” The guidelines have prompted a response from a local politician. Tuesday, U.S. Representative Hank Johnson said he was sending a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressing “deep concern” about the Army’s new regulation, saying it “unnecessarily discriminates against African American and other minority women.” The guidelines have prompted a response from a local politician. Tuesday, U.S. Representative Hank Johnson said he was sending a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressing “deep concern” about the Army’s new regulation, saying it “unnecessarily discriminates against African American and other minority women.”
Stanley agrees the guidelines can be discriminatory, especially when it comes to putting those regulations into words. For example, calling dreadlocks “matted.”
“I’m not quite sure they understand exactly what that means. I think they may be operating off of some very old ideals,” said Stanley. “So I’m very glad that the language has moved them to act at this point. I’m sorry that it took a word like “discrimination” before people would listen to the women who are directly affected by this.”
GPB’s On The Story reached out to an Army spokesman for an interview. While he declined, he sent GPB the statement below:
"The Army recognizes the concerns expressed by Soldiers who believe they are restricted by the number of natural hairstyles authorized by the Army. We are committed to providing our leaders and Soldiers a clear, concise, standard on wearing a hairstyle, which portrays a professional, conservative image."