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Black Women, Hair & the Military

Submitted by Chinue Clifford

Hair is often considered a woman’s crowning glory. Yet, for many Black women who serve their country, it is an impediment.

For Captain Clevy Nelson-Royster, like so many other Black women who serve, it could be challenging to find styles that were deemed appropriate by the army standards predating 2017. She would often wear her hair natural in corn rows while serving and training in the Army ROTC at Tuskegee University. Despite being an HBCU, she still dealt with challenges and even discrimination around hair, choosing a natural style.

Wearing it in its natural state, meaning it was free to be curly, coily and even kinky, is practical for many Black women while training. To chemically or artificially straighten one’s hair is not only damaging, but harder to maintain. Artificially straightened hair will often re-curl when wet- which includes getting wet by sweating.

Imagine being required to do vigorous physical training everyday while being able to wear your own hair in a style that endured the constant movement and sweat. Captain Nelson-Royster would wear her hair in protective styles such as twists and extensions to help protect it while adhering to dress code guidelines. Eventually, she would chemically straighten her hair as a way of ensuring her style met guidelines that then still excluded Black women from dreadlocks and other looks. This helped ensure that she could look “professional” as decided by Army standards.

Many Black women, and quite a few in Captain Clevy Nelson-Royster’s family, have, at one time or another, chemically altered their hair to adhere to standards that do not consider the natural hair of Black women to be professional. Finally, these standards are starting to change. In 2017, the Army changed some of it’s rules.

Just eight states in the US make discrimination against natural Black hair illegal, one of which is Connecticut, where Clevy was born. It is hoped that more states will follow.