The Department of the Air Force is discussing a pilot program that would allow airmen and Guardians to grow beards, one of the most requested changes to uniform and grooming standards among service members.
The potential test comes as other service branches have crafted policies that limit shaving for troops — particularly African American men — who suffer from painful ingrown hairs.
Screenshots of emails and messages posted to the popular Amn/NCO/SNCO Facebook page, where airmen often go to vent and share insider information about their duty stations, describe a possible pilot program that would “test and research the impacts of male facial hair” and report the findings to the Department of Defense.
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Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Air Force, said the screenshots were from a volunteer discussing ideas with the department’s Black/African American Employment Strategy Team, adding that the proposal for the pilot program has not yet been approved.
“The screenshots reflect a volunteer’s recommendation for how to proceed if a proposal for a pilot program is approved,” Stefanek told Military.com. “The proposal is being discussed
within the Black/African American Employment Strategy Team, one of the Department of the Air Force Barrier Analysis Working Groups, but has not been approved.”
The email shown in the screenshot was signed by Space Force Brig. Gen. Devin R. Pepper, the deputy director of the Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate for U.S. Space Command.
The email discussing possibilities for the Department of the Air Force’s pilot program said selected airmen and Guardians would be allowed to grow facial hair as long as it’s “neat in appearance, shaped appropriately, and not faddish.” Those in the program would limit growth to one-quarter of an inch.
Some service members get frequent ingrown hairs and skin irritations known as pseudofolliculitis barbae, or PFB. The condition is often found in curly-haired men and occurs in about 60% of African American men, according to studies by the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.
Beards are allowed in the Air Force only with a religious or medical waiver. Some African American service members said that obtaining a shaving profile harmed their careers.
A survey conducted for a 2021 study for the journal Military Medicine showed that, of those who had received shaving waivers, 21.4% said it had a negative impact on their careers. But an alarming 63% of those who said it had harmed their careers or created negative bias within their unit were African American.
Some services have tried to combat that problem head on.
The Navy announced a new policy in March stating that sailors diagnosed with PFB would not be kicked out of the ranks for not shaving, and would be allowed to edge and outline their beards instead of being forced to grow them out.
A large number of Guardians, like service members from other branches, are advocating online for beards.
In a recent opinion piece, Maj. Mark D. “Nix” Natale — an Army officer assigned to the British Army Headquarters in Andover, United Kingdom, who transfered to the Space Force — said allowing more progressive facial hair policies would greatly increase morale.
“We shouldn’t build a culture limited by the past,” Natale wrote. “Let’s look to the future. Do not fear the beard; resistance is futile.”
— Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
Related: Military Services Lighten Up on Facial Hair and Uniforms in New Policies
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