ATLANTA – Four years ago, when Jasmine Jacobs decided to change her hair from a perm to a more natural look, she figured it would make her a better soldier – require less care, especially on maneuvers and drills.
Jacobs, who lives in Atlanta, already had two years in the Army National Guard under her belt; she knew that however she decided to wear her hair, it had to be neat.
“I never had anyone say anything to me about my hair,” Jacobs said. “It’s never been out of regulation or interfered with my headgear.”
That changed in April when the Army issued sweeping changes in how women in uniform can wear their hair.
The rules specifically ban certain hairstyles, including twists, large cornrow braids and dreadlocks, popular among black women. And that hit a nerve already tenderized by generations of debate within the black community over what constitutes “good” or “bad” hair.
Jacobs, 25, who wears two-strand twists, launched a White House petition to get the ban reversed, arguing that it arbitrarily penalizes the more than 26,000 black women on active duty in the Army.
The changes are “racially biased, and the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent,” the petition said. It got more than 17,000 signatures but failed to meet the 100,000-signature threshold that would trigger a presidential response. It also garnered the attention of the Congressional Black Caucus, which asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to revisit the mandate.
“The Army recognizes the concerns expressed by soldiers who believe they are restricted by the number of natural hairstyles authorized by the Army,” Army spokesman Troy A. Rolan Sr. told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are committed to providing our leaders and soldiers a clear, concise standard on wearing a hairstyle, which portrays a professional, conservative image. The Army continues to review uniform policies for improvement.”
The new regulations coincide with the Army’s efforts to reduce its numbers from 520,000 to as few as 440,000 service men and women.
The policy also outlaws tattoos on the face, neck, lower arms and hands. And it bans some women’s hairstyles not associated with a particular racial or ethnic group, such as angled cuts in which one section of hair is dramatically longer than the rest.
In the text of the regulation, the Army says it is needed to ensure a “uniformity” of appearance as well as soldiers’ ability to wear headgear unimpeded by their hair. The rule characterizes banned styles as “extreme, eccentric or faddish …”
That judgment has reopened centuries’-old wounds stemming from arguments over how black women wear their hair, why they wear it a certain way and the power behind it. And although Jacobs’ petition gained considerable traction, she is now a civilian.
She was slated to get out of the Georgia National Guard, where she was a public affairs specialist on May 15. Her discharge was moved up to April 11.
“I just think I said what everyone else was thinking. I didn’t have any options of what to do with my hair,” said Jacobs, whose twists barely reach her collar. “At the end of the day, it hit so personally, because it was offensive and insulting. To be quiet would have been the greatest insult.”
Tanya Todd, a 33-year-old medical laboratory scientist who served in the Army from 1999 until 2007, called the new policies “absurd.”
“We are being faulted for our God-given crowning glory,” Todd said. “The decision was obviously made by those who fail to realize what our hair naturally looks like when it isn’t altered.”
Tarshia Stanley, chairman of Spelman College’s English Department and an expert on the black female image, said that before girls can even articulate what it means, they are bombarded – by black ideals and white images of beauty – with political, social and cultural pressure to mimic white women’s hair.
According to the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association – and figures cited in comedian Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” – black hair-care products and cosmetics are a $9 billion-a-year industry.
“We have been told for so long and from so many sources that our hair is not good enough and that it must be straight and long,” Stanley said. “The relationship between women and their hair has always been deep. But with black women, it has also been a very complex relationship.”
Nevertheless, Stanley stops short of calling the Army’s policy racist.
“I think it has more to do with cultural blindness,” she said, adding that when she started growing her dreadlocks in 1996 she got criticized mostly by blacks. “It would seem to me that the Army would want to stay away from policies that would be considered historically and culturally significant. To tell black women that their hair isn’t good enough is hurtful.”
Under the guidelines, hair extensions and wigs are authorized, as long as there are no obvious distinctions between the artificial hair and the person’s own hair. That particularly irks Jacobs.
“Having to chemically alter my hair or getting a damaging weave doesn’t make sense,” she said. “They want us to have a white hair standard.”
Jacobs said she started to go natural in 2010, after relaxers left her with chemical burns and she lost patches of hair. She figured going natural would be healthier, safer and easier to maintain.
Many black women, for example, have traditionally braided their hair before long vacations or if they are participating in athletic events like running or cycling.
Although her petition has gotten national attention, she’s not optimistic that the Army will relent.
“In order for the military to make changes, they have to admit they were uneducated, and say they made a mistake,” Jacobs said. “They never took the time to educate themselves on who these new regulations would end up isolating.”
However, on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the military to reconsider the new policies.