It's taken many, many years for Black women to be allowed to wear their natural hair in the workplace, but there are still some occupations where it's not allowed — including the army.
The army is one of the few occupations where your boss can publicly denounce your hairstyle in front of your coworkers, and where choosing an unconventional hairstyle could threaten your career and livelihood.
Black army veteran Krystol Madison, who served from 2003 to 2011 and was deployed twice to Iraq, spoke to Revelist about the many challenges Black woman face when serving in the US and abroad.
Although today Madison is a makeup artist who boldly rocks her natural hair in an Afro, she knows what it’s like to search all over for a relaxer while in Iraq and be constantly scrutinized for her hairstyles by her male superiors.
This is Madison's experience, as told to Revelist reporter Mary Anderson.
"There are very strict guidelines [in the army] that follow with hairstyling."
"Basically for women in the army at the time [it was] if your hair was short, then OK, you could wear it short, but it had to be slicked down almost. Like, it just had to lay flat on your head. If your hair touched your neck, basically, you had to pull it into a bun.
They [said] you had to maintain a professional [and] neat appearance. And it was the same way after training. It’s pretty much all the same stuff. They allowed us to wear cornrows, but even still, you had to put them in a bun in the back if your hair touched your collar."
"I had a whole strategy [to doing my hair in Iraq]."
"Like, if I knew I was going to be gone for a year, then for the first three months I would just wear my hair in a regular bun.
And then after that three-month mark, that’s when my roots kind of started coming out and they [wouldn't] lay flat. Once that three-month mark hit, I would get my hair braided and honestly when it came to getting my hair braided it was, 'Oh, I hope I can find somebody that knows how to braid hair.'"
"You can [wear extensions], but still it has to fall within the guidelines."
"For instance, I had micro braids at one point and they were totally fine with us wearing them... At first, it was the only braids you can wear are cornrows and they have to go straight back, but [it was] because micro braids just look like [hair].
Yes, we were allowed to wear wigs, weaves, extensions, so long as it didn’t distract from the appearance of the uniform because I guess the purpose of being in uniform is to kind of blend in with our surroundings. We’re not trying to draw attention to anybody."
If Madison wore makeup, she would carry the rules with her in case her superiors questioned her.
"I remember one of my first days I was working I wore some lip gloss, and one of my sergeants said, 'You’re wearing makeup?!' I said, 'Yes.' He replied, 'You’re not allowed to wear makeup.' And I said, 'Yes I can, according to [this] Army Regulation... I have it right here if you’d like to read it, sergeant.' And he was like, 'Oh. OK.' And he let it go.
[I carried the rules with me] because that was something a [Black female] drill sergeant had told me about when I was in basic training.
Once we were all done with training and waiting to graduate, she [gathered] all the Black girls that were in our basic training class and she told us, 'Y'all got a hard road ahead of you. Being short, being Black women, especially being a short Black woman, I know what it’s like... The army is very male-dominated. And you’re going to come across a lot of scrutiny.' Even wearing makeup, because I remember that day she wore makeup."
Finding a hair stylist in Iraq who knew how to style Black hair was a major challenge.
"The people who ran the salon, they were really nice ladies. I would go there all the time to get my eyebrows threaded and get a manicure... but they didn’t speak English that well. And that’s why I was like, 'Oh no, I don’t trust them in my head,' because they don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t know what they’re saying. You know, getting your eyebrows threaded and getting a manicure is one thing. Getting somebody in your head is another. They understood a little bit of English, like if you said 'eyebrows' of course they’ll say, 'Oh, I’ll fix your eyebrows,' but I can’t say, ‘Oh, I want my hair retouched, relaxed, and I need a no-lye conditioning perm,' so I just never did."
I did work with a woman who went to the salon religiously, but she had to bring her own perms to the salon because they didn’t have them there."
When asked about finding Black hair products overseas, she explained her mother had to fly items over.
"The first deployment, my mom sent the [braiding] hair, but it wasn’t enough hair, [and the girl who braided my hair in Iraq] added some... by the time the second deployment came, I was a pro. I actually had hair products sent overseas."
"The scrutiny I would’ve received from my superiors would’ve been hell [if I went natural]."
"Yes, it is definitely possible to go natural while in the military, but it would’ve taken a lot of time to properly care for it because of all those stipulations on how the hair has to be worn... and also considering how thick my hair is, I would’ve been spending hours each day straightening my hair, with boxes and boxes of hair gel trying to get it to slick down.
And I know this because I remember there was a girl who... was new to the army and I think she had a 'bad weave'... She was natural, but she had a sew-in, [and] you could see her edges were 'nappy edges.' There’s nothing wrong with nappy, kinky edges! And I remember one of my sergeants came up to me and said, 'Hey, you need to say something to her because her hair looks freakin’ crazy. You need to show her how to take care of her hair properly. I mean look at you. Your hair always looks nice.'
I never did say to her, 'Girl, you need to [fix your hair]' because I’m not going to tear down another sister, especially when there were only three Black women in the unit."
Madison knew a fellow Black servicewoman who had to wear a wig over her dreadlocks while in Iraq, since her natural hair was against the uniform.
"I don’t remember why we got on the subject of her hair, but she said, 'I hate I have to wear this wig and it’s hot outside. And I have to wear this wig because my hair is not in regulation.' And I said, 'Well, just put it in a bun.' And she said, 'I have dreadlocks.'
And it specifically at the time said no dreadlocks, whether it was pulled into a bun or not. And she said, 'I’m not going to cut my dreadlocks.' And I guess what she’d do when she got to drill, she would just wear her wig... I think her job was an administrative job, so it’s not like she had to be outside rolling in the dirt. So she was like, 'When I go to drill I’d just wear my wig and call it a day.'"
Despite Madison completing her service only six years ago, the army has certainly come a long way in improving its hair regulations.
"I’m so proud of the fact that we’re fighting for ourselves because nobody fights for us."
"And that really warms my heart to know that, and to know that there are people out there that are encouraged and know that they’re not alone and we can do great things together. And I think that question is redundant to say, 'Oh if there wasn’t backlash, do you think they would’ve changed it? No!' There wouldn’t have been backlash if they had not putting it out there in the first place."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity