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Pentagon reverses black hairstyle restrictions

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A number of popular black hairstyles, including twists and bigger braids, will now be allowed across most branches of the military, a relaxation of hairstyle restrictions that had sparked criticism from black service members and lawmakers.

In a letter, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who in April announced a three-month review of the regulations, said that each branch “reviewed its definition of authorized and prohibited styles, and eliminated offensive language, including the terms ‘matted and unkempt,’ from both the Army and Air Force grooming regulations.”

“Additionally, each Service reviewed its hairstyle policies to ensure standards are fair and respectful while also meeting our military requirements,” he wrote in the letter, addressed to Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio). “These reviews were informed by a panel of military personnel of mixed demographics reflective of our diverse force.”

The original restrictions had been denounced by some in the military who saw the ban on certain styles of braids and twists as racially insensitive.  Some 10,000 people signed a White House petition asking that the Army reconsider its policies to make them more racially inclusive.

In April, the female members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent Hagel a letter suggesting that the policies and language indicated “a lack of cultural sensitivity conducive to creating a tolerant environment for minorities.”

The Army, Air Force and Navy have expanded the number of acceptable styles, permitting cornrows, twists and larger braids and removing spacing requirements.

Fudge welcomed the rollback, which give female service members, particularly African Americans, greater flexibility in terms of hairstyles.

“These changes recognize that traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are often necessary to meet our unique needs, and acknowledges that these hairstyles do not result in or reflect less professionalism or commitment to the high standards required to serve within our Armed Forces,” Fudge said in a statement.  “With these changes, Secretary Hagel and the Department of Defense not only show they are responsive to the individuals who serve within our military, but that he and his leadership respect them as well. The Congressional Black Caucus commends Secretary Hagel for his leadership in addressing this issue.”

The Army, Navy and Air Force have agreed to the changes, while the Marine Corps will convene a special uniform board this summer.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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