The U.S. Army on Tuesday unveiled a set of significant changes to its hair and grooming standards -- including long ponytails and buzz cuts for women -- intended to meet the needs of more soldiers.
The sweeping changes to the service's hair and grooming policy are based on soldier recommendations, Sgt. Maj. Brian Sanders, Army G-1, Uniform Policy Branch sergeant major, told reporters at a roundtable.
A special panel, made up primarily of female soldiers, reviewed recommendations from the field on female soldiers' needs, especially those of Black women, Sanders said. The panel was made up of soldiers from across the service, including Training and Doctrine Command, Army Forces Command, Army Special Operations Command and the Army National Guard.
"Since I got to the job in December 2019, there has been a big cry for help from the Army on how we try to make things different, and it was primarily coming from our female soldiers," Sanders said.
Many of the changes are meant to prevent alopecia, a type of hair loss, and to help express cultural preferences and gender identity, he said.
"This is one way we are working to improve the lives of our soldiers ... by putting people first, understanding their concerns, taking action when necessary and maintaining their razor-sharp edge of readiness," Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, deputy chief of staff for Army Personnel, told reporters in a round table.
"Equity, inclusion and diversity are all very important to Army readiness because we have soldiers from all walks of life ... and we have to represent them so our Army policies must therefore promote equity and inclusion."
One major change will allow buzz cuts for women, a recommendation that came from female soldiers attending Ranger School and other combat arms training courses.
"When they come out of the course, they are out of regulation. As of right now, the current standard will not allow female soldiers to have their hair lower than a quarter of an inch," Sanders said. "So, we decided in the panel, do we want to make this only for school or do we want to give our women in the Army the opportunity to have their hair at any length? We went with let's not tell a woman the length of hair she can have. So now, we will specify no minimum hair length for women in the Army."
The new hair standards will also allow women to wear both short and long ponytails instead of a bun.
"Having our women try to force their hair into this tight bun ... leads to hair loss. ... This leads to a lot of other medical conditions of the scalp," Sanders said.
Female soldiers will be authorized to wear the long ponytail only during physical fitness training and with the Army Combat Uniform, or ACU, during tactical training, while riding in tactical vehicles and in other situations where they are required to wear a helmet.
Sanders did not say whether there is a maximum length for a long ponytail, but female soldiers will be required to tuck long ponytails into the ACU blouse, the policy update states.
At first, the panel did not pass the recommendation because it allowed soldiers to wear the long ponytail with all uniforms.
"It was the only topic out of all of them where the panel was a little bit split," Sanders said. "So, what we got after was, 'Now, let's kind of look at this for when can it be useful,' and that is how we got to authorizing long ponytail for physical training and also when we are doing combat operations with appropriate headgear.
"If you have seen some pictures of some of our female soldiers out there with this helmet on, the helmet tends to lean onto the top of their eyebrow, which can impair vision -- which can definitely affect combat lethality," he added.
Many of the changes to the grooming standards affect Black women more than any other demographic, Sanders said.
"We went into this with the intent of 'how do we take care of soldiers?' But it's one of those things where there might be one population that might be more affected than others. And what the dermatologists saw was that, 'Hey, this is going to be for all our female soldiers and male soldiers because male soldiers suffer from alopecia as well.' But ... the dermatologists were able to call out, 'Hey, I see this condition more in my office through Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] -- we see a lot of these things happen with alopecia and hair loss primarily from our black females."
"This has never been authorized before; the current standard only authorizes the wear of earrings with the service and dress uniforms," he said. "This is extremely groundbreaking for the U.S. Army."
Female soldiers can wear gold, silver and diamond earrings with the ACU, but pearl earrings will be reserved for the service and dress uniforms, Sanders said. Earrings may not be worn in the field or on combat deployments.
"[Psychologists on the panel said], 'Earrings obviously do a lot for a woman to still feel like a woman inside and outside the uniform," Sanders said. "One thing we can never forget is, at the end of the day, our women are mothers, are spouses, they are sisters, and they definitely want to maintain their identity."
The change also provides more clarity on the wear of lipstick and nail polish, specifying what is and isn’t in regulations. While female soldiers are allowed to wear lipstick and polish, they won’t be permitted to apply extreme colors such as purple, gold, blue, black, white, fire-engine red, hot pink, yellow and other neon colors.
"We [want] to authorize lipstick and nail polish, but we want to make sure that we keep a standard that we don't [allow] loud colors such as the yellows, the hot pinks, the ... bright fire engine [red]. We want to make sure we specify," he said.
The change is also gender-neutral, so men can wear clear nail polish. Sanders explained that the change is designed for men working in job specialties dealing with harsh chemicals "to be able to provide care for their nails, to be able to provide a medical means to help protect their nails."
The changes to the hair and grooming standards will be sent out in an Army memo between Feb. 25 and Feb. 26, Sanders said.
The top enlisted adviser of the Army, Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, said he'd learned through recent conversations some things about soldiers' needs and concerns that he'd never known before.
"I'm really excited about today; we get the chance to roll out something that soldiers are excited about and that they really want to hear about," he said. "This is about listening to our soldiers, taking what they are saying and then [deciding] how can we incorporate that into the Army."
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the changes to lipstick and nail polish regulations.
-- Matthew cox can be reached at email@example.com.