Army revamps appearance regulations after controversy

Army Pfc. Kevin Nixon, left, a Fort Bragg solider, watches as tattoo artist Brad Armstrong shades in a tattoo of a cross on Nixon's shoulder on Oct. 11, 2013, at Ink Well in Fayetteville, N.C.


By CHRIS CARROLL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 17, 2014

This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON — The Army dialed back some controversial rules on tattoos and women’s hairstyles in an update on Tuesday to the regulation governing appearance and uniform wear.

In March, the Army issued a heavily revised Army Regulation 670-1, a move that spurred grumbling in the ranks and a protest on Capitol Hill with newly restrictive language about a number of appearance issues.

The more stringent tattoo policy issued in March remains largely unchanged, retaining the limits on the size, number and location of tattoos. Full sleeve tattoos are still banned, for instance, and no more than four small tattoos can be visible on lower arms and legs. The rules were meant, the Army said in press release Tuesday, “to maintain the professional appearance of the force.”

While tattoos in violation of rules issued in March could be grandfathered, soldiers with grandfathered tattoos couldn’t seek a commission or appointment without receiving a special exception. That changed Tuesday.

“The updated regulation takes into account that previously authorized tattoos should not prevent a soldier from becoming an officer, but that candidates are to be evaluated based on the whole soldier concept, or all characteristics of a soldier,” the Army said.

The new regulation also makes clear that soldiers can’t add to grandfathered tattoos on parts of the body, such as lower arms and legs, where tattoos are unacceptable for new recruits.

Tattoos on the face, neck and hands, as well as those that express racist, sexist, indecent or extremist messages, remain forbidden.

The updated regulation also clarifies requirements for body mutilation or modification, specifying that plastic surgery and other medically approved changes to the body are acceptable. And, the regulation says, troops who entered the army with approved mutilations — a bifurcated tongue, for example — before April 2014 can seek a waiver.

Although the Army said the March revisions had been developed by a cross-section of Army personnel, including black women, the language of the rules for women’s hair brought immediate charges of insensitivity.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that followed, the Congressional Black Caucus declared “the use of words like ‘unkempt’ and ‘matted’ when referring to traditional hairstyles worn by women of color are offensive and biased.”

Hagel ordered the Army and other services to review their policies, and announced last month regulation changes were coming.

The new Army regulation removes the offending words, which were used to describe dreadlocks. But dreadlocks — newly defined as “any permanently twisted, or locked coils or ropes of hair (or extensions) or hair tangled closely together” — remain forbidden in the Army. The new revision also tones down a paragraph that laid down the law on women’s hairstyles, removing discussion of bans on “locks and twists (not including French rolls/twists or corn rows)” and cutting out two references to braids.

But there are some substantive changes to hairstyle rules as well. The policy now authorizes temporary, two-strand hair twists for women. The maximum diameter of braids and cornrows has also been increased to a half-inch, and the requirement that no more than one-eighth of an inch of scalp be visible between braids has been removed.

Among other changes: Soldiers can now wear certain health gadgets — activity trackers, pedometers and heart rate monitors — with Army uniforms.

Also, soldiers also can wear the “next of kin” lapel pin on their service and dress uniforms. The pin is for the immediate family of military members killed on active duty or while on drill status in the National Guard or an Army reserve unit.

Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

Under pressure from lawmakers, the Army, Navy and Air Force changed their uniform policies to allow female servicemembers to sport previously banned hairstyles. Among the changes are that twists can now be worn by female soldiers, and female sailors and airmen can wear two-strand twists.