07/12/2018 07:23 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2018
Image Left: COURTESY OF JACQUALYNN LEAK : Petty Officer 1st Class Jacqualynn Leak hid her locs under a wig for years before fighting to lift the Navy’s dreadlocks ban.
Before, some sailors were forced to choose between their hair and their service.
The U.S. Navy is joining the Marines, Army, Coast Guard and Air Force in ending its ban on dreadlocks for female sailors. The naval branch announced the reversal Tuesday in a live broadcast on its Facebook page.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson says the change won’t just make the Navy more formidable, but also more inclusive.
The Navy enlisted a six-person working group to recommend changes to grooming standards, based on feedback from their peers. As part of the decision, ponytails, buns and other styles will also be permissible for women in uniform so long as they don’t interfere with a sailor’s operational or safety needs. Male sailors are still required to keep their hair short.
I am not my hair, but in a way, I am. This change is another way for me to represent who I am and feel like the Navy embraces it.Petty Officer 1st Class Jacqualynn Leak
Petty Officer 1st Class Jacqualynn Leak, a member of the working group, has worn dreadlocks since 2014. She led efforts to reverse the ban and says her fight involved years of research on the cultural and health aspects of wearing locs. She also surveyed dozens of female sailors affected by the ban.
“I wanted to make an argument so compelling that every reason my chain of command could give me for why dreadlocks were banned could easily be rebutted with facts,” she said.
Before, Leak opted to cover her shoulder-length dreadlocks by wearing a wig, which she says became more difficult as her hair grew. Options were even more limited for other female sailors. Some were forced to choose between cutting off their dreadlocks in favor of chemically straightened hair, or facing harsh punishment.
In 2014, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jessica Sims, a hospital corpsman, was honorably discharged for refusing to cut off locs she’d worn in a tight-knit bun for over a decade.
While challenges to military rules on hairstyles aren’t new, controversy surrounding black hair reached a peak around the time of Sims’ discharge. As word spread, revisions to Army grooming regulations were leaked, revealing proposed changes to ban hairstyles common among women of color. The proposed policy, called AR 670-1, would have banned all natural hairstyles, including twists, braids, cornrows and Afros.
Many criticized the regulations as specifically targeting black women. Once it had been made public, the policy faced immediate backlash, culminating in an open letter from the Congressional Black Caucus and an official review ordered by the Pentagon. The decision was ultimately reversed.
But that reversal didn’t include dreadlocks. First Lt. Whennah Andrews of the U.S. Army National Guard has been fighting for servicewomen’s right to wear them ever since. Together with fellow soldiers, Andrews began a campaign to challenge misconceptions many within the military have about dreadlocks’ cleanliness, cultural relevance and ease of use.
Leak enlisted Andrews for guidance when deciding to take on the Navy. Andrews says the Navy’s announcement is the final triumph signaling a victory for military diversity.
“When news broke that the Army lifted the ban on locs, I thought to myself, ‘It’s not a complete win until all of the branches authorize them,’” she said. “The unique challenges African-American servicewomen faced with trying to adhere to grooming policies were universal across the Department of Defense.”
This week’s decision makes the Navy the last branch of the military to drop grooming regulations that prohibit dreadlocks. The Marines first approved locs for women in 2015, and the Air Force announced late last year that dreadlocks would become an approved hairstyle after a review by its uniform board. The Army authorized dreadlocks for women earlier this year after having previously banned them since 2005, and the Coast Guard began allowing dreadlocks in 2014 following personnel feedback and the Pentagon’s reversal on natural hair restrictions.
For Leak, the reversal means she and many other locked servicewomen will no longer have to choose between sporting a hairstyle important to their culture and representing their country.
“I am not my hair, but in a way, I am,” Leak said. “This change is another way for me to represent who I am and feel like the Navy embraces it. It sends a message to sailors that we’re seen and valued for everything we are, including our service.”
This story has been updated to include details about the Coast Guard lifting its ban on natural hairstyles.