The Policing of Black Women's Hair in the Military.

AuthorSmith, C. Chic
PositionHuman Hair: Intrigues and Complications - Report


Hair may seem like a trivial topic to some, but for Black women it is far from trivial. Weitz (2001) notes that hairstyles are essential cultural artifacts. Hair is public (available for all to see), personal (biologically connected to the body), and flexible as it can be altered or maintained to suit personal and cultural preferences (Firth 1973; Synott 1987). Hair is central to a woman's social position and has historically been used to gain power (Weitz 2001). Weitz (2001) notes that the most common way women use their hair to try to obtain power is by utilizing strategies that minimize opposition. Hence, men are distracted by the woman's compliance to what is deemed is beautiful. Sullivan (2001) notes that adhering to the prevailing ideals of attractiveness, including hair, is a route to power for women in the areas of relationships and professions. Many women who dye their hair blonde are fully aware of this strategy. In 2009 comedian and actor Chris Rock examined the nuances of the black hair and its care as a means to be an informed parent to a Black daughter with hair questions. Rock's Good Hair(George, N. & Hunter, J., 2009) documentary was informative, humorous, and revealing. The movie revealed issues such as the types of products available, the cost that Black women are willing to pay to maintain their hair, the investment of time required, and the various styles worn by Black women. Since the release of Rock's film, the topic of Black women's hair appears to be a constant part of America's discourse.

There is much to be considered when it comes to Black women and hair. Factors such as age, employment, social acceptance, and cultural identity are just a few of the issues that are a part of the hair equation. Black women in the military are no exception, yet most do not consider this population when discussing various challenges, they equally face regarding their hair.

Black Women in the Military

For men, the military has served as a launch pad into manhood and even a rites of passage worldwide (Higate, 2001). Although the transition from civilian to military life for women has not been deemed as transformative, women continued to enlist. Black women have long served in the United States military. According to the Buffalo Soldiers Research museum located in Indiana, Black women have been a part of every war in the history of America (Hicks, G. & Hicks, C. 2010). They worked alongside countless husbands and fathers as they comforted and nursed the afflicted. Black women even served as spies for their country. These women were skilled seamstresses, gardeners, cooks, folk healers, quilters, all while amassing an invaluable amount of communal and institutional knowledge (Schafer, 1996).

During the Civil War it was quite common to find Black women providing services such as nursing, domestic chores in medical settings, cooking for soldiers and doing laundry. When freed Black men enlisted in large numbers in the Union Army, their female family members frequently secured employment with the unit. These Black women were hired to raise cotton on plantations for the northern government to sell (Fowler, 1991). Harriet Tubman served her country during the Civil War as a Union spy, unpaid soldier, and volunteer nurse among other things. She was given the name "General Tubman" by enlisted soldiers. Following the Civil War she established the Boston Branch of the Women's Relief Corps. Tubman's memoirs were published in 1902 and provides the only written account of Black volunteer nurses during the Civil War (Hodges, 1995). In current times, Melin (2016) notes that Black women join the military at higher rates than men and other ethnic groups.

Military Culture

Yet, one of the challenges for women in the military is the culture. Military culture is instilled in all new personnel from the onset of their military career. Military life begins with some form of basic or initial training for active as well as reserve members. The training varies depending on the branch of service from 8 to 13 weeks (SAMHSA, 2010). This initial training is where service members are indoctrinated with the culture of the military. This initial training is essential as it is designed to teach discipline, focus, and control. During this training, military personnel learn "the history of their service, military customs and courtesies, proper wear of the uniform, military bearing, military values and ethics, and other information that is critical to their success in the service, including how to listen and follow orders and how to function within the military chain of command." (SAMHSA, 2010, p. 9) In essence, this initial training is where new recruits, both men and women, are taught to live their lives according to military standards.

A key component of the military culture is that service members are expected to deny their humanity and their individuality (culture, gender, ethnicity, etc.) as they learn to be disciplined and focused.

Service members are expected to be disciplined in their actions and words and to maintain control of their emotions and their physical selves at all times. Along with discipline and control comes focus. Focus is important to mission success, and the services teach young recruits how to focus in challenging situations--situations where they are lacking sleep, are physically exhausted, or are under unaccustomed and extreme stress. (SAMHSA, 201, p. 10).

This makes an examination of military policies regarding the grooming and hairstyle policies impacting Black women a viable space for exploration.

Black Hair

While not ignoring the fact that women of all ethnic compositions deal with the connotations associated with hair, it is important to note that Black hair is frequently the polar opposite of what society has deemed beautiful as it relates to hair (straight in texture and long in length) (White & White 1995). As a result, the hair of Black women in particular has been viewed negatively. Various scholars note that during the 15th century, the hairstyles of Africans would indicate one's marital status, wealth, age, ethnic identity, rank within the community, and religion (Byrd & Tharpe 2001; Jacobs-Huey, 2006; Mercer, 1994). Before the transatlantic slave trade Black hair indicated cultural and spiritual meaning for men and women (Thompson, 2009). With the onset of slavery in America, the Caribbean, and Canada, Africans were forced to work all day and had little to no time for hair nor the tools appropriate for maintaining their hair.

"Treasured African combs were nowhere to be found in the New World, so the once long, thick, and healthy tresses both of men and women became tangled and matted" (Byrd & Tharpe, 2001).

African women were accustomed to donning elaborate hairstyles began to wear head scarfs to protect them from the sun and cover their unkept hair (Thompson 2009b). It was during the 18th century that upper class White men wore wigs and the Africans that worked in the houses began to wear them as well (Banks, 2000).

Firth (1973) states that "hair differences in colour and texture create social differentiation." Social differentiation "(re)creates" and/or maintains a hierarchy whereby hair colors and textures are viewed and treated as lower or "Other," particularly when the hair belongs to a woman (Pivec, 2018).

As we grow more comfortable with ourselves, what is on our heads should stop controlling what is inside, making us more tolerant of what others have done with their hair (Koppelman, 1987).

Mercer (1994) states that in societies where race configures social interactions of power, hair, takes on another symbolic dimension. In these instances, the negative attributes associated with race are extended to hair as it is as visible as skin color. The ideologies of race that used a...

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