The New Battle Braids of the U.S. Military — Report

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With an Army career of almost 30 years, Major General Telita Crosland, the deputy surgeon general, remembers a time when even a hair elastic was verboten: “As a cadet, you couldn’t put anything in your hair. No rubber bands, no clips, no barrettes.” Crosland recalls that, as a physician heading to Iraq in 2005, “one of the stresses was, ‘What am I gonna do with my hair?'” Let’s back up for a second: Being deployed into a war zone, Crosland had the added worry of how she would handle her hair, with few tools at her disposal. Her ultimate solution was to slip a couple of at-home relaxer kits into her bag. But over the past year, Crosland has had the joy of
experimentation: “I had braids from June until August — I hadn’t had braids in 20-plus years. After I did the braids, I went natural. I just have more options. I don’t spend money going to the hairdresser as much. In a year, I have saved significant money.” But you can’t put a price on the impact of the new guidelines. “They make [people] feel included,” says Crosland. “If I feel like I belong because I can carry some of my individual self into [my job], performance is better.”

That’s exactly what Captain Whennah Andrews has experienced — now and back in 2017, when she was instrumental in getting locs added to the grooming standards. Three years earlier, the Army had instituted a ban on large cornrows and all locs. “Shortly after that, I decided to wear a straight bob wig in uniform to cover my twists,” says Andrews. But she felt like she was hiding more than her hair: “I felt like I was wearing a mask. I didn’t feel accepted. [Now] I can show up to the workplace as myself. It’s given me an extra boost of confidence. [Even] in uniform, my Liberian heritage is celebrated through my hair. Braiding has been a part of our family since I was a little girl.”

Several digital communities have been created to provide support for women like Andrews who know what it’s like to feel alienated simply because of their hair. “Military Natural Hair has over 8,000 members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces,” she says. “The group provides tips, product recommendations, and shares stories and experiences.” Created in 2011, Military Natural Hair is a Facebook OG; since the locs ban was lifted in 2017, female soldiers have also created Sisterlocked & Loving It, a Facebook group about 3,000 strong, and Loc It Up, with nearly 6,000 members. “What I love about [Loc It Up] is that they’ve created a directory of stylists who are experienced in taking care of locs across all duty stations — even Korea,” Andrews says. Sisterlocked & Loving It educates military women on how to become certified in the Sisterlocks technique so that no matter where they’re deployed, their hair will be taken care of. Andrews says locs-specific groups were necessary to build confidence because “some servicewomen were still insecure and self-conscious about wearing them.”

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