Trimming the talent; can changes to current facial hair polices help the Air Force with diversity and talent management challenges? 

By Tiffany Behr


United States Air Force (USAF) facial hair regulations likely affect diversity goals and talent management.

Few can honestly argue that the military is not in a talent management crisis. While the military is currently meeting its end strength, there is a struggle to retain and attract talent in high-demand career fields such as cyber operations, linguistics and special operations[1]. This talent is imperative to national defense strategy execution, ensuring the U.S. remains ahead of our strategic adversaries.

The military cannot afford to alienate or discriminate against any individual, either those who want to serve or those currently serving, for having facial hair — be it for religious observance or a medical concern. 

According to Drs. Tshudy and Cho, roughly 45% of African American service members and 3% of Caucasian service members are affected by pseudofolliculitis barbai (PFB)[2]. PFB “is a common inflammatory condition of the face and neck caused by shaving in predisposed individuals who have naturally curly hair.”[3] At any given time, there are an estimated 168,000 service members who have medical facial hair waivers across the joint force.

A photo of painful PFB

Often the only treatment options for PFB are to grow a short beard, use a painful cream which can permanently damage skin, or have laser hair removal. Laser hair removal is time-consuming, expensive, and extremely painful. Airmen have reported paying $1,500 – $3,000 for a series of six treatments. The hair eventually comes back, necessitating repeated laser hair removal.

The military is making strides to assist service members with PFB. For example, in March 2022, Tricare, the military’s health care insurance, approved laser hair removal for PFB when medically necessary. Unfortunately, many laser hair removal facilities do not accept Tricare. The approval and reimbursement process makes a virtually impossible option to utilize for most members.  Veterans Affairs recognized PFB as a serious medical condition and some Veterans with PFB qualify for up to 30% disability.

MSgt Gaddiel Israel in his USAF Service Dress with 2 inch facial hair

Laser hair (even when provided through Tricare) comes at a physical and emotional cost. One airman reported laser hair removal felt like a rubber band snapping while he watched in horror as smoke emitted from his skin. Another airman expressed emotional distress over getting his shaving waiver denied and having to go through the laser hair removal process to permanently alter his body.

An airman reported getting laser hair removal saying he did this to “conform to the Air Force standards and eliminate any chance of me being negatively looked at as a senior non-commissioned officer. I drank the Kool-Aid and have possibly altered by body for eternity. I guess that is the price we pay to look ‘professional’!”

Testimony from another airman who felt forced to deal with the prohibition against having facial hair reflected on the tradeoffs of service with a medical profile and the impact that would have on career advancement stated, “I squirmed, and took a deep breath, readying myself for the next painful laser pulse.”  For many Airmen, laser hair removal is a choice between progressing in their career, or facing a continual battle of applying for shaving waivers.

Some Airmen choose to have a beard in order to be in alignment with the requirements of their religion. While religious accommodation is getting better, the process is still cumbersome. For example, MSgt Gaddiel Israel, a Christian, applied three times for a religious accommodation to grow a beard. He was successful on his third try and was recently selected for promotion to Senior Master Sergeant.

MSgt Israel has been a positive advocate for Airmen when it comes to beards. He has helped countless Airmen through the waiver and religious accommodation process. He feels fortunate to have had great leadership who supported him and did not “write him off” for having a beard. 

Unfortunately, not every airman has had the same experience as MSgt Israel.

Current regulations (AFI 36-2903 3.1.2.3) of the USAF prohibit male members from growing facial hair and require members to seek a shaving waiver every five years (on average). Renewing the waiver can causes members emotional distress and stress as there is no guarantee it will get approved.

A pilot study of a small group of USAF male members showed that a large number of those who had been on a shaving waiver felt discriminated against: “Black/African-American members made up the largest portion of the waiver holders in that study (68.44%).”[4]

According to an USAF survey, causality was found between shaving waivers and delayed promotions. Since the majority of those on shaving waivers are Black/African-American, the current male grooming standards are causing a racially discriminatory on Black/African-Americans serving. [5]

Airmen have reported distressing comments from leadership such as, “you will not make it up the ladder or win anything if you have a shaving waiver.” And: “You won’t get afforded opportunities or positions if you have a beard.”

Lieutenant General James Slife, Commander Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC Unfiltered-Episode 3) admitted during that segment to having a “blind spot” when it came to facial hair. Lt. Gen. Slife is not the only leader unaware that Airmen are literally burning their skin to conform to the Air Force regulations and admits facial hair is a perfect example of cultural blind spots.

One of the motivations for not allowing beards is the concern for obtaining a secure gas or oxygen mask seal. In actuality, one study conducted with half-face respirators revealed 1/8 of an inch beard growth to be effective for 98% of gas mask wears, and 1/16 of an inch to be 100% effective. Additionally, at Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) our European partners are executing their flying mission with facial hair and zero impact on their ability to execute the mission in the aircraft.

Norway Armed Forces members with facial hair.

Other concerned raised revolve around uniformity of appearance. Even so, beards have a rich and long history in the military. When you visit the Army and Navy Club in Washington D.C. the walls are lined with pictures of military titans such as General Sherman and General Grant, who professionally display facial hair. Until 1984 the United States Navy allowed beards.

The “Converted Mountaineers” of USS West Virginia in 1944

Putting aside long-standing traditions and gas masks, we are at the point where we must move away from the common assumption that if you have facial hair, you are a less than an ideal airman and a liability. To ensure our military is able to deter, fight, and win against our adversaries it is imperative we are as diverse as the people we serve and protect. Removing the prohibition against facial hair and allowing a ¼ inch growth that looks professional, meets gas mask standards, and allows for more inclusive hair standards is one way to remove a hidden barrier preventing some service members from reaching their potential. Through allowing inclusive facial hair policies the military can begin to view facial hair as being no different from the diversity and tolerance that exists with varieties of hair color.

***

Photo: MSgt Gaddiel Israel in his USAF Service Dress with ¼ inch facial hair


[1] https://www.airforcetimes.com/pay-benefits/2022/04/11/air-force-hopes-to-entice-airmen-with-bonuses-fast-track-enlistment/

[2] Michael T Tshudy, MD, USAF, MC, Sunghun Cho, MD, MC, USA Pseudofolliculitis Barbae in the U.S. Military, a Review, Military Medicine, Volume 186, Issue 1-2, January-February 2021, Pages e52-57, Https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usaa243

[3] Michael T Tshudy, MD, USAF, MC, Sunghun Cho, MD, MC, USA Pseudofolliculitis Barbae in the U.S. Military, a Review, Military Medicine, Volume 186, Issue 1-2, January-February 2021, Pages e52-57, Https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usaa243

[4] Shaving Waivers in the United States Air force and Their Impact on Promotion of Black/African-American members

[5] Shaving Waivers in the United States Air force and Their Impact on Promotion of Black/African-American members


One thought on “Trimming the talent; can changes to current facial hair polices help the Air Force with diversity and talent management challenges? 

  1. I’m a Air Force member affected by pseudofolliculitis barbai and it has caused me great pain throughout my years of service. The affects of this condition is not only visible but it also impacts your confidence which can also affect your self esteem. The messaging in this article is very important for bringing light to this issue with hopes of knocking down barriers. Great article and thank you!!!

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