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The Navy just announced a major overhaul of its hair regulations for women, and the changes make the military branch far more inclusive. Servicewomen may now style their hair in dreadlocks, French braids, ponytails, and bigger buns than previously allowed.
The changes are a win for all Navy servicewomen, but they’re particularly a victory for black women, who continue to face restrictions on natural hair in the workplace. In fact, it’s still legal for employers to impose dreadlock bans.
The Navy’s updates to its grooming policy come more than a year after the Army’s landmark decision to allow its servicewomen to wear locs. (In 2017, the Army also loosened guidelines related to beards, hijabs, and turbans for religious purposes.) The Navy didn’t change its policy without prompting but as a direct result of suggestions women in the fleet made to a working group.
Capt. Thurraya Kent, a senior member of the working group, said that conforming her hair to Navy guidelines has been a concern throughout her 25-year tenure, according to the Associated Press. The working group asked the Navy to make the changes to be more inclusive of women with a wide range of hair textures and to allow them the option to forego chemical hair relaxers.
While the Navy’s updated grooming policy certainly spells progress, it still includes several restrictions. Commanding officers may ban any style they believe constitutes a safety hazard.
And women can only wear the new styles during situations when their hair isn’t likely to get tangled up in safety gear.
Although servicewomen may now wear ponytails and French braids, which before were only permitted during physical training, the end of the braid or ponytail can’t fall more than three inches past “the lower edge of their shirt, jacket or coat collar.” And if they want to wear a hair tie, ribbon, scrunchie, or another hair accessory, it has to be the same color as their hair. The French braid update seems especially overdue considering that in 2014 the military had already greenlit box braids for women sailors. The only restriction was that the braids stopped above the collar.
The newly approved locs also come with some limitations. They can’t be worn in zigzag or curly styles. Plus, they can’t be more than 3/8 of an inch apart when hanging down.
Women sailors fond of styling their hair in buns, like Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama, and Sasha Obama, can now wear buns the same width as the back of their heads. Previously, buns couldn’t surpass three inches in diameter. The update likely comes as a relief to all the big-haired women who struggled to make their hair fit into a tidy ballerina’s topknot.
Lastly, when servicewomen step out in their dinner-dress uniforms, they may now do so with more flair. They no longer have to wear their hair in a bun or in any style above the collar. They can actually wear their hair well past their necks.
Collectively, these changes make the Navy a more welcoming place for servicewomen. The military branch includes more than 50,000 women, or about 19 percent of the fleet. But that figure is projected to grow to 24 percent by 2025. As more women from all backgrounds enlist in the armed forces, it only makes sense for the military to make the environment as welcoming as possible for them. Lifting bans on commonplace hairstyles for women is just one of many ways to achieve that goal.