Meet the Trailblazing Black Servicewomen Who Are Embracing Natural Hair in the Military

August 25, 2017

Vogue reports that in January of this year, the United States Army revised its grooming and appearance regulations, including its ban on dreadlocks for female soldiers. Word of the policy change spread quickly, with black servicewomen up and down the ranks posting jubilant videos to social media, some of whom had endured the discomfort of wigs and damaging straightening treatments in order to comply with the strict rules, wherein authorized hairstyles are measured down to a fraction of an inch.

The implications of the new directive were far greater than a single style, signaling a seismic shift in attitudes toward Afro-textured hair that has long been the subject of intense scrutiny, both in the military and beyond. Even as the current natural hair movement reaches critical mass and the full spectrum of black hair—wavy, curly, kinky, coil-y—is being celebrated in every sphere, be it the boardroom, the red carpet, or the street, some of the old misconceptions linger.

“When I first came into the military, people would always say, ‘What’s the problem? Why can’t you just straighten your hair?’” says Army Captain Deshauna Barber, who, like her peers, has wrestled with regulations that were diametrically at odds with her springy, breakage-prone coils. “I don’t think people realize requiring someone with curly hair to have straight hair is like requiring someone with straight hair to make their hair curly. When you’re repeatedly putting heat on textured hair, guess what? It falls out.” The pressure to conform to a traditional smooth bun often demanded harsh chemical relaxing treatments or crack-of-dawn styling sessions, and was only exacerbated by the challenges of life on the front line, where all members of the Army are pushed to their physical and mental limits.

As the conversation continues to evolve across all branches of the armed services, the first signs of progress are becoming visible—in recent years, the Army and Air Force have approved for female soldiers braids of increased size as well as twists, for instance, while removing words such as unkempt from their grooming guidelines. As a result, more servicewomen than ever are seizing the opportunity to experiment with regulation-approved options for natural hair, including the 17 trailblazers photographed for this portfolio. Their stories tell of exceptional resilience, courage, and triumph, and many are redefining beauty norms across the board—Barber, for example, was the first military member to be crowned Miss USA and graced the stage with her natural hair for her final walk as Miss USA this year. Others, like Whennah Andrews, are helping to change the dialogue around natural hair in the military from the inside out, submitting compelling videos that dispel the myths surrounding locks to the uniform advisory board at the Pentagon and actively changing policy. In leading the charge for greater understanding and acceptance, these women are reimagining what it means to be in uniform.

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