By Jessica Ruttenber
The Air Force announced its new hair policy allowing female Airmen to wear their hair down in a single braid, double braid or pony tail. This change in policy will provide relief to thousands of women who suffer from hair loss and tension headaches caused by long hours of wearing hair pulled too tight. As the public affairs article went viral, reposted over 10,000 times within hours, the Air Force demonstrated they once again hit the mark as this change was met with an overwhelming positive response. Known to some as the #FreeTheBun movement, this medical and inclusion issue was the first substantial change in hair modernization for female Airmen in 70 years. This long overdue policy change did not happen overnight. It is the result of a few persistent and passionate individuals who have demonstrated the highest echelon of leadership: fighting for their Airmen.
In 2016, then-Technical Sergeant Johnathon “JB” Lind noticed something off with one of his young Air Traffic Control tower controllers during a shift. The Airman explained she was experiencing headaches and a condition called alopecia, a medical condition which causes hairloss. This condition was a result of the requirement to pull her hair back to meet Air Force hair standards. JB recalls the Senior Airman in tears, telling him she “didn’t want to lose any more of her hair.” JB relayed the story to his wife, a Staff Sergeant who was deployed at the time, and was shocked to discover she too had been living through the same challenges.
JB saw this as a call to action. Over the next five years, he made serval attempts through his chain of command to propose hair policy changes only to be met with opposition from what he calls the “frozen middle.” Frustrated but determined, he founded a group known as the Warrior Braids Project, who developed and submitted proposed hair policy changes to the Air Force’s Uniform Board. Despite repeatedly pushing it forward, the Uniform Board never agreed with the proposed changes. Undeterred after five years of perseverance, JB found an indispensable ally and unconditional support at his most recent duty station through his leadership at the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
During the same time, Lieutenant Montana Pellegrini read social media stories of women experiencing headaches and hair loss from wearing their hair in a tight bun. These accounts triggered a painful reminder of when she was medically disqualified from pilot training specifically due to migraines. Having experienced a major life change from the same issues that were associated with buns, she understood the significant impact that changing Service hair regulations would have for females in the Air Force.
Pellegrini took action, elevating her concerns to the Chair of the Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team (WIT), Major Alea Nadeem, who leads the all-volunteer group working to make policy change to ensure inclusivity of women. Pellegrini agreed to lead the effort and partnered with Captain Sarah Berheide who leads the WIT’s Female Healthcare Working Group. During their research they joined forces with MSgt Lind. The team made up of four Airmen – Maj Alea Nadeem, Capt Sarah Berheide, Lt Montana Pellegrini, and MSgt Johnathan Lind, shepherded this initiative to make it a reality.
— Air Force women everywhere
Through a survey, thousands of servicewomen provided feedback about Air Force hair regulations. Respondents largely considered the current policy discriminatory, especially to those of African American or Native American descent. Roughly 68,470 active duty and 39,502 National Guard and Reserve Airmen and Guardians were impacted by hair standards, with a disproportionate impact toward ethnic Airmen who have different hair types. Of the 10K+ survey respondents, 93% of female Airmen and Guardians agreed that the hair policy for females in the Air and Space forced needed to be updated. 52% referenced headaches and migraines due to the hair policies.
Servicewomen experienced receding hairlines, bald spots, hair thinning and reduced regrowth, better known as traction alopecia. Many also experienced migraines, hair breakage, scalp sensitivity, soreness, and moldy hair by putting it up wet in a bun. The Warrior Braids unofficially polled active duty female Airmen and Guardians and found 7 out of 10 reported migraines associated with the bun. Data also showed a higher rate of alopecia and hair loss among female active duty when compared to civilians within the military healthcare system. Military equipment has not been designed around a women’s bun; women had two options cut their hair short to properly wear a gas mask, helmet, night vision goggles, or take it out for the duration of training and be out of regulations. Or worst, not wear the equipment properly.
Most U.S. allies’ militaries already had inclusive hair policies. Canada allows a single braid, double braids, or a ponytail. Norway’s policy allows hair to be arranged so it does not fall below the upper edge of the jacket or shirt collar, or over the eyes. Alternatively, the hair can be set up in one loosely hanging braid, one ponytail, one knot centered on the back of the head or by using hair nets. Israel allows female soldiers with hair that descends past the collar of the uniform shirt, to have their hair tied back via a ponytail, a hair clip, or braided and Germany approves hair that can touch the shoulders when the body and head is held upright must be braided/plaited, tied or pinned back.
The U.S. military is the most diverse military force in the world; however our hair policies were not reflective of diverse hair options. That was until 21 January when the Air Force announced the hair policy change.
One of the General Officers who championed this overdue change was Lieutenant General Mary O’Brien, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations at Headquarters Air Force and the senior WIT champion. Under Lt Gen O’Brien’s leadership, she removed barriers and provided the much needed fire support to ensure the team was able to present their findings and recommend solution to the right senior leaders. Lt Gen Mary O’Brien remarked that, “this movement reflects leadership’s willingness to listen to feedback from service members and take rapid action. This policy change is long overdue, but the manner in which it took place showcases the trailblazing spirit of our Airmen and Guardians. The work done by the WIT proves that good ideas don’t usually come from the top—they come from passionate service members who truly believe in accelerating change.”
The recommendations to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force for hair policy change resulted from months of feedback, research, and data gathering collected by the Department of the Air Force WIT. The effort was substantiated by multiple senior leaders, at all echelons, who penned letters of support and expressed their own desire to see this needed change come to fruition.
“The team identified a problem and presented an innovative, common-sense solution. It was a matter of getting the information in front of the right decision makers” Capt Berheide stated. “This policy update is an example that Airmen at any level can affect change beyond their local unit. Our Airmen are the experts and have the innovative solutions essential to winning America’s wars. The WIT model is a necessary answer to [Air Force Chief of Staff] General Brown’s call to Accelerate Change or Lose.”
While hair policy may seem insignificant as we have real-world problems, the DoD has to start updating policies to be reflective of all Airmen, which includes servicewomen. The hair polices servicewomen inherited from the 1940’s under the Women’s’ Auxiliary Corp were not rooted in mission readiness or operational missions. No one in the 1940s fathomed a woman would ever fly an aircraft or be on the front lines. The old polices were rooted in how a woman should look in uniform; not how she can best wear a helmet safely to do her mission.
While the policy change arrives after several decades of being largely ignored, it comes at an important time for the service. Many of the restrictions included in hair policy have been particularly impactful to women of color, whose hair can suffer disproportionately compared to other servicewomen. For years, women of color have had to consider the damage to their hair as the cost of service in the Air Force.
“As the service continues to put a premium on diversity and inclusion initiatives, this policy change is very much in lockstep with the Department of Defense’s path forward,” said WIT Chair Major Alea Nadeem. “Amending the rulebook isn’t just another good talking point for the Air Force’s efforts in diversity; there are real operational impacts to this policy change, our team pushed. It’s just good, old-fashioned common sense.”
Edited by Megan Biles
Featured Photo provided by the Warrior Braid Project: Captain Susan McLeod in the 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Hill Air Force Base. The initial effort presented, where this photo is from, was to allow women to have a length to their elbows.
The opinion written by the author is her own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force.