YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — If you wanted to complain about your hair care, you might think Command Master Chief Joe Steadley wouldn’t be your best audience.

You might think he’d be unsympathetic or uninterested.

You would be wrong.

Steadley, the base’s top enlisted sailor, knows a lot about hair, and how to do it.

He taught himself to cut hair years ago while assigned to a submarine and later worked at a salon in Charleston, S.C. Today, he still cuts his wife’s hair.

“I can do all the cuts and perms,” Steadley said. “But I can’t do the coloring.”

So he said he understood completely when a sailor called the Commander’s Corner call-in radio program recently and complained about difficulties getting hair appointments on her days off, with a stylist trained in cutting black women’s hair. Steadley sprang into action.

“I said, ‘You should have priority,’” Steadley recalled. The command responded by establishing a different method for taking appointments. Starting Nov. 1, active-duty personnel got priority for Saturday appointments with two stylists. Additionally, a hair braider was added to the staff of eight stylists.

But that was the easy part.

Although salon stylists are certified to do all sorts of hair, most lack experience doing black hair. “You generally don’t find people who are experienced with black hair who aren’t black,” said Arcelia Denby, a Human Resources Office supervisor and beauty salon customer. “It’s not that stylists don’t want to do it,” he said, “but very few people will say, ‘I know you need experience. Get it on my head.’

“It’s not that I’m skeptical just of white stylists. I’ve lost my hair more than once, going to black women. When it comes to chemicals, you have to be very careful.”

One stylist is a Japanese national; the rest are spouses of active-duty servicemembers, according to Jerry McMahan, Navy Exchange services manager.

Just two are black and of those, one is on maternity leave, McMahan said. The one who remains at the salon is “in demand.”

Denby goes to her. She makes her appointments six weeks in advance.

“If she’s sick or has an emergency, it’s cancelled,” Denby said.

How many black women here are affected is unclear. Although a recent Defense Manpower Data Center analysis showed 1,685 black male and 318 black female sailors at Yokosuka, the center does not track data about sailors’ dependents.

Most of Denby’s black women friends cope by going to one of the several people who do hair in their homes, “a friend of a friend,” she said.

“I wish we could satisfy the whole population,” McMahan said. “I’m constantly looking to recruit stylists with more experience with ethnic hair.”

However, McMahan said, he believes several of his stylists are proficient at doing blacks’ hair.

In some ways, the system at the base barber shop, which contracts with a primarily Japanese staff instead of hiring dependents, may work better for black customers.

That’s because barbers — unlike salon staff members, who rotate out frequently — stay long enough to get experience on black sailors’ hair and learn current styles, sailors say. Two of the barbers have an excellent reputation.

But Sgt. Martin Beidleman, recently assigned to the USS Kitty Hawk, isn’t so sure.

“Every time you sit down” in the barber’s chair, “you’re taking a chance,” he said, while sitting in a barber’s chair last week.

When his haircut was done, he was less than thrilled.

“It’s OK,” he said. “In Italy, they brought in an African barber. He was good.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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