LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
For years, most women in the U.S. Army were required to wear their hair short or pinned back into a very tight bun. That time has now passed. Earlier this year, the Army began allowing women who spend most of their day away from the field freedom from the bun. And this month, the Army updated that change to allow female soldiers a little more freedom.
NICOLE PIERCE: I actually started to practice braiding my hair because I was so excited that we were going to be able to braid our hair and wear ponytails.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s Sergeant Nicole Pierce, who works at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. She’s been able to wear braids and ponytails since January, and now she’s able to wear them untucked, so long as they don’t go past her shoulder blades, thanks to the update to the updated grooming policy. Major Terri Taylor, stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, has enjoyed not having to chemically relax her hair because locks, braids, twists and cornrows can come together in one or two braids or a ponytail and still meet regulation.
TERRI TAYLOR: With locks, there is a style called barrel rolls in which our hair can be rolled back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Taylor usually pins up the ends, but now she can leave them free if she wants.
TAYLOR: Very professional in appearance, very neat and is very user friendly because that style can last at least two weeks. So that allows me to not have to manipulate my hair as much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No loose ends for Major Faren Aimee Campbell in Silver Spring, Md.
FAREN AIMEE CAMPBELL: Yeah, so in the Army, I’m pretty much known as the bald major. Within my unit, I’m the only bald female.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She suffered hair damage and loss after years wearing her hair in a tight bun, and she’s not alone. Many Black women soldiers reported having that experience. Major Campbell says she’s happy the U.S. Army allows her to be…
CAMPBELL: Bald by choice. I do shave my head, and it’s been a very freeing change within the regulation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s not just comfort here. Thick hair buns make it difficult for women to wear their helmets properly, making it low on the eyes, sometimes obscuring vision, a problem when you have to aim your weapon.
JENNIFER FRANCIS: We’ve all mentioned some of these things were long overdue.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s Sergeant Major Jennifer Francis of the U.S. Army Institute for Surgical Research at Fort Sam in Houston, Texas. She was on the panel that gave input to leadership about updating the grooming guidelines.
FRANCIS: We are an army, and we can’t necessarily do everything civilians are doing. So we’ve got to figure out what’s best for the Army and its people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Women now make up about 15% of the U.S. Army, and about a third of those are Black. Many see rules against certain hairstyles as outdated at best, discriminatory at worst. Major Terri Taylor, now set to retire after two decades of service, says how a soldier wears her hair when she’s on base does not change her lethality or her professionalism.
TAYLOR: Who’s to say that a ponytail is not professional in appearance? Who’s to say that locks are not professional in appearance? As long as you can properly wear your headgear and look professional in your uniform, I think that’s what matters at the end of the day.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Army now joins the Navy, the Air Force and Space Force – yes, Space Force – when it comes to allowing loose ponytails.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this report, we incorrectly say that Fort Sam is in Houston, Texas. Fort Sam is an informal name for Fort Sam Houston, which is in San Antonio, Texas.]
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST: