A new update to the Army's grooming regulations tackles these questions, but the problem is, some female soldiers say the policies are racially insensitive.
Army Regulation 670-1, or "Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia," is an oft-updated edict that defines standards of professional appearance within the branch. The newest updates, which went into effect on Monday, include clarification on tattoos (another hot topic among military members), uniform wear, nails and -- perhaps most controversially -- hairstyles.
Previously, the regulation did not specifically address things such as braid widths or numbers, or the definition of twist styles. With the newest update to 670-1, however, the regulation says women cannot wear their hair in multiple braids more than a certain width and cannot wear twists of any kind.
Several black female soldiers say the new rules are "racially biased" and "show a lack of regard for ethnic hair," because they severely limit the number of options for people with especially coarse or thick hair and imply certain hairstyles are unprofessional.
Army leadership claims the changes are intended to clarify the professional look of Army soldiers, and an Army spokesman told HLN that all service personnel are given access to instructional materials to help them abide by the regulation.
"Policies within these publications give soldiers and leaders the responsibility for ensuring our appearance reflects the highest level of professionalism," the spokesman noted in a statement. "All adjustments made within these regulations went through an extensive decision-making process with continuous input from various levels of Army leaders.
"The U.S. Army is dedicated to ensuring aoldiers and leaders have easy access to policies to ensure our Army maintains a professional, neat, and soldierly appearance."
Here are some specifics from the updated regulation, word-for-word:
On braids: "When worn, multiple braids will be of uniform dimension, small in diameter (approximately 1⁄4 inch)."
On twists: "Twists are defined as twisting two distinct strands of hair around one another to create a twisted rope-like appearance. Although some twists may be temporary, and can be easily untwisted, they are unauthorized (except for French twists). This includes twists formed against the scalp or worn in a free-hanging style."
On "devices," or hair accessories: Soldiers will not place hair-holding devices in the hair for decorative purposes. All hair-holding devices must be plain and of a color as close to the Soldier's hair as is possible or clear ... Devices that are conspicuous, excessive, or decorative are prohibited. Some examples of prohibited devices include, but are not limited to: large, lacy scrunchies; beads, bows, or claw or alligator clips; clips, pins, or barrettes with butterflies, flowers, sparkles, gems, or scalloped edges; and bows made from hairpieces."
As has been the policy for several years, locks of any kind are unauthorized. Wigs and hairpieces are authorized in certain situations. An Army leadership training manual released in March provided photos depicting the unauthorized hairstyles.
In late March, Sgt. Jasmine Jacobs of the Georgia National Guard started a White House petition urging the Army to reconsider the changes.
"Females with natural hair take strides to style their natural hair in a professional manner when necessary; however, changes to AR 670-1 offer little to no options for females with natural hair," she wrote in the petition. "In the proposed changes, unauthorized hairstyles include twists, both flat twists as well as two strand twists; as well as dreadlocks, which are defined as "any matted or locked coils or ropes of hair." These new changes are racially biased, and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent. This policy needs to be reviewed prior to publishing to allow for neat and maintained natural hairstyles."
Currently, the petition has almost 8,000 signatures.
"We feel let down," Jacobs told the Army Times. "I think, at the end of the day, a lot of people don't understand the complexities of natural hair. A lot of people, instead of educating themselves, they think dreadlocks and they think Bob Marley, or they see women with really big Afros and they think that's the only thing we can do with our hair."