This is an odd piece for me to write. Usually I'm the first one to defend the right of Black women to wear their hair any way they please. And I know that professional natural hair styles are often a tricky proposition. What works for one person may not work for another and 'appropriateness' is generally a matter of taste. I am in no way saying that our natural hair is unprofessional. Frankly, I enjoy the flexibility being natural affords me in choosing styles to suit my mood. But in some fields, taste and individuality are trumped by cultural norms and safety concerns. The U.S. military is one of those fields.
Like every other military regulation, those governing appearance are long, detailed, and geared toward soldiers fitting into a military aesthetic that is the same, whether they are in uniform or on duty in civilian attire. The recent announcement of the updates to Army Regulation 670-1 has spawned concerns that African American women with natural hair will be left with no styling options other than a relaxer, a weave, or a wig. Restrictions on how far the hair can protrude (not more than 2 inches from the scalp for except for buns, which can be 3 inches), on how long bangs can be (no longer than your eyebrows, and not visible under your headgear), and on the types of styles that can be worn have led to petitions, articles touting the idea that hair must be straightened to be acceptable, and outrage that there are grooming standards at all.
Yes, two strand twists, locs, and braids larger than ¼ of an inch are forbidden. So are hair colors that don't occur naturally, extreme or faddish styles (shaved on one side, designs cut into your hair, etc), and buzz cuts. What can you wear as an African American woman with natural hair that won't require hours of styling time, chemicals, or magic? Well, the good news is there are lots of options. Love wearing mini twists? Switch them out for mini braids. You can add hair if it suits you. You can wear them loose (as long as all of your hair is braided and it falls above your collar) or pull them back into a low cinnamon roll shaped bun if your hair is longer. You can wear cornrows that aren't braided into intricate designs, and are set closely together. You can wear French braids and comb coils. You can even (depending on hair texture and length) wear a French roll, which isn't much different from a roll and tuck. While you cannot wear short hair high and tight in the Air Force, you can wear a tapered low cut as long as the hair on top of your head is at least ¼ of an inch.
In other words, you can absolutely be an African American woman in the U.S. military with natural hair.
I'm speaking from my experience as a veteran of the U.S. Army who went through Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training with my hair in cornrows, or two French braids, while I was in uniform. Hair was simply not a battle I wished to fight, so I read the regs, figured out which styles worked for me, and wore those while on duty. When I had a relaxer I quickly tired of wearing ponytails and buns, so I cut my hair into a blunt bob and kept it moving. When my hair was natural, I defaulted to styles I could put in place for a week (or more) rather than contend with daily hair maintenance. There are a plethora of blogs, books, and videos that you can use as resources to find a hairstyle that works under these regulations. As soldiers, we know that the equipment we wear to protect us, whether it is a cover (hat), Kevlar (helmet), or gas mask with hood has to go over our heads and fit snugly. Is having to braid your hair instead of twist it really that difficult? If it is, you can apply to your chain of command for a waiver. But be clear, it could be worse. The new regs could be gender neutral, and require everyone to adhere to the short list of approved styles for male service members. So forgive me for wanting to say, "Toughen up, buttercup" to those who are terribly bent out of shape. There are many things about life in the U.S. military that I can (and have) criticized, ranging from substandard medical care on some posts to the climate that allows sexual harassment and assault to be swept under the rug. But when it comes to appearance regulations? Hair styling is one of the easiest to adhere to, and requires little in the way of actual sacrifice.