The Army passed controversial new rules for soldiers’ tattoos, hair, and grooming standards. The Army Times reports that the stricter guidelines are a response to the past decade’s crunch to get soldiers, allowing in persons with visible tattoos and other appearances that would otherwise offend the Army’s ideals of professionalism.
The current soldiers whose tattoos violate the new policy will be grandfather in, unless the tattoo is sexist, racist, or extremist. Not surprisingly, no definition of what a sexist, racist, or extremist tattoo is given, though Army Sargent Major Ray Chandler opined the majority of soldiers’ tattoos are not those.
The regulation also caused controversy over new guidelines for women’s hair, which many contend are racially biased against soldiers who are women of color. Publishing guidelines with pictures to clarify the policy, the regulation bans various twists, braids, and cornrows, and completely forbids dreadlocks, which Sargent Jasmine Jacobs of the Georgia National Guard says “offer little to no options for females with natural hair.” Finding other avenues to garner change unsuccessful, she started a White House petition that calls the policy “racially biased” and says “the lack of regard for ethnic hair is apparent.” She poignantly told reporters, “I’m disappointed to see the Army, rather than inform themselves on how black people wear their hair, they’ve white-washed it all.”
With similar sentiment, the Women of America’s Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) issued a letter to the Secretary of Defense. They called the changes “discriminatory rules targeting soldier who are women of color with little regard to what is needed to maintain their natural hair.” The letter adds, “the use of words like ‘unkempt’ and ‘matted’ when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased.”
With such strict rules for tattoos and racially charged hair policies, the new changes raise various First Amendment and equal protection considerations — however, any such challenge risks being unsuccessful because of strong deference to the Army. For example, the 1986 opinion in Goldman v. Weinberger, extensively discussed in Dressing Constitutionally, involved a soldier wearing a yarmulke and the Supreme Court deferred to the military prohibition. Congress later altered the law. Thus, pressure from the CBC and activism from within the ranks might prove more fruitful to changing the present benighted policy.