I have a new reason to pray for world peace: If WWIII breaks out, the draft comes back, and somehow I get called up to serve my country, I’ll be facing a drill sergeant that will tell me the same drivel black women have been hearing since we were dragged off slave ships: Ma’am that nappy, kinky, extra curly hair that grows out of your head will get in the way of your ability to shoot a gun and kill the enemy. Straighten it so it looks more professional -- or else.
OK, maybe the drill sergeant will use the term “highly textured” but either way it goes, Army Regulation 670-1, the just-released 60-page document that details acceptable grooming rules for soldiers is not checking for my hair.
The rules explicitly ban many of the hairstyling options black women who want to serve their country but choose to just say no to pressing combs and straightening chemicals have at their disposal. “Twisting two distinct strands of hair around one another to create a twisted rope-like appearance,” is now a no-no. What gets the green light? The Army helpfully shares a picture of a white woman with straight hair that’s pulled back into a low bun. Great.
Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs, a member of the Georgia National Guard, who has rocked her natural hair for four of the six years she’s been in the military, is speaking up against the new rules. She wears her hair in short neat twists, and it fits just fine under her headgear. She’s going all the way to the President in the hopes of getting the Army to reconsider their policy—she’s posted a petition on the White House website asking the Army to allow professional ethnic hairstyles.
Jacobs points out that over 30 percent of women in the military are of color and, “As of 2011, 36 percent of females in the U.S. stated that they are natural, or refrain from chemically processing their hair,” Jacobs writes, and that making “both flat twists as well as two strand twists; as well as dreadlocks, which are defined as ‘any matter or locked coils or ropes of hair;’” against regulations seriously limits black women’s options. Jacobs adds, “These new changes are racially biased and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent.” That’s because, as Jacobs told Army Times, “Most black women, their hair doesn't grow straight down. It grows out."
Critics of Jacobs say that she knew the rules when she enlisted. Even if she thinks the military is operating off of some seriously Eurocentric standards of professionalism, she knew what she was signing up for.
My sister, who is an Army veteran and now works as a police officer, has natural hair that’s as big and curly as mine. Law enforcement has rules about your appearance that are similar to the military, but my sister’s a detective, so she has more flexibility about her appearance on a day-to-day basis. But when she’s in her official police uniform, she whips out a bristle brush, massive amounts of hair gel, some rubber bands, and hairpins. She styles her hair so that it’s flat against her head and tucked under her cap.
“It’s not the most flattering style,” she told me. “But I do it. I respect the rules, I respect the uniform.”
She gets the point Jacobs is making, but she points out that the military is about conformity. That means guys get buzz cuts when they come in. If you want to wear your favorite cute turquoise nail polish, forget it. The military wants everyone to look the same and be focused not on their appearance, but on following commands in dangerous situations.
“When you get out of the military, wear your hair however you want,” my sister says. “In the meantime, you need to follow the rules.”
But Jacobs says she was following the rules. In response to one of the comments over at Army Times, Jacobs clarified that she didn’t just start twisting her hair out of the blue. “Speaking with my leadership (1SG and Commander) before beginning to wear twists, back in 2010, I ensured my hair followed the standard. I even spoke to the CSM in my battalion about it,” she wrote.
Now she and thousands of other black female soldiers are out of regulation. Petitions require 100,000 signatures in order to receive a response from the White House, and as of this writing, fewer than 10,000 people have signed Jacobs. In the meantime, as she wrote in her comment, she has “already made it a point to try and find something to do to my hair other than cut it off or put chemicals in it as some have suggested.”
I’ve been told by several black women that I can get away with wearing my hair in it’s natural state because I live in Los Angeles, the land of people who will show up to a memorial service in jeans, and because I work as a writer. “When you’re creative, people expect wild and crazy hair,” one friend recently told me.
But the perception that black hair is wild and crazy is exactly the problem. This is just what grows out of our heads, and there’s nothing unprofessional about it.
If I was a soldier in a war situation, I probably couldn’t rock my big ass afro -- not because it would interfere with my rocket launcher and grenade-operating capabilities, but because I know it wouldn’t fit under my helmet. I wouldn’t have time (or access) on a daily basis to a flat iron, and if I didn’t want to go back to chemicals, the Army commissary might not have hair gel, or the leave in conditioner I like that would enable me to attempt to slick it into that “professional” bun like my sister does.
So it seems like having natural hair in neat locs -- no one is talking about some Bob Marley style hairdo -- or twists would actually be the most hassle free styling option for a black female soldier. If Jacobs has already been doing her job as a soldier even though she has twists, it sure seems like the military, not her, is the one with the problem.