Coming together to lead change to the Air Force’s bulk hair policy

  • Published
  • By Maj. Alea A. Nadeem
  • Chief, Women’s Initiatives Team

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Good enough is not the standard when it comes to taking care of our Airmen and Guardians.

After women’s hair updates to Air Force Instruction 36-2903 were announced in February 2021, the service continued to receive feedback from the force, particularly addressing differences in hair density and texture.

As a result, a Women’s Initiatives Team, made up of junior- to senior-level Airmen from across the Air Force, recently came together to advocate for change to the service’s new bulk hair standards and the hard work has paid off.

The Air Force recently announced that beginning June 25, when hair is secured behind the head, the hair may extend six inches to the left and to the right and six inches protruding from the point where the hair is gathered. The 12-inch total width must allow for proper wear of headgear.

“There has never been regulation on how thin or straight hair can be, it would be absurd to regulate that. I’m thrilled that the Air Force has made this change,” said Tech. Sgt. Shannon R. Moore, Ramstein Air Base, Germany. “Having regulations that accept your natural physical characteristics goes a long way towards fostering inclusion.”
The changes mostly surround those with type 3 and 4 hair and the team put together a proposal citing the medical, operational, and inclusion aspects of allowing those to be able to wear their hair naturally.

The previous hair policy stated, “a maximum bulk of 4 inches from scalp and allows proper wear of headgear…one or two braids or a single ponytail may be worn down the member’s back with bulk not exceeding the width of the head.”

However, this change made it difficult for servicewomen with type 3 and 4 hair to wear their hair naturally in a ponytail or when cut short.

The proposal presented to the Air Force Uniform Board researched and explained why this was a necessary change. Citing feedback conducted with more than 1,795 Airmen and Guardians, 63% identified as having type 3 or 4 hair.

Many respondents with type 3 or 4 hair said they had to chemically treat or heat their hair to be compliant with the newly revised 4-inch bulk standard. In addition, they said the hair policy was not inclusive for those with type 3 and 4 hair and 76% thought it would be appropriate to change the bulk standard.

The Air Force’s change in bulk and width standards aligns with national initiatives to eliminate discrimination.

While the original change was in the right direction, there was still more to be done to get it over the finish line. I applaud our leaders for empowering the Women’s Initiative Team, to take another look and make the recommendation that shaped the policy into this more inclusive standard.

This effort wouldn’t have been possible without the feedback from Airmen.

It received incredible support from Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien at the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., Col. Jenise Carroll, Hill AFB, Utah, Col. Tamara Henderson, Air Office of Special Investigations Region 3, Col. Eries Mentzer, Maxwell AFB, Ala., and Col. Kayle Stevens, JB Langley-Eustis, Va.

“As a 3C-4A hair type, the previous policy was not all inclusive and I’m proud to have been able to contribute to this cause and make a lasting change for Airmen,” Carroll said.

In addition, Master Sgt. Jonathan Lind, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., Capt. Montana Pellegrini, Tinker AFB, Okla., and Capt. Sarah Berheide, Andrews AFB, Md., led many of the efforts for this worked to gather data, highlight the barriers, and moved to action this change.

Without their action-oriented mindsets, this would not be possible.

It is evident it takes a team of all backgrounds and rank to make change and the new bulk hair standard is proof change can happen with the right team in place.