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U.S. Army Officials Are Updating The Allowed Hairstyles For Women

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States Army eased restrictions on women's hairstyles, like loose ponytails and braids. Jay Price of member station WUNC has been talking with women in Fort Bragg and learned that this is about a lot more than personal style.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Before the new rules, to meet regulations, many women would wring their hair into a tight bun on the back of the head. Those buns can take a lot of time every morning, cause problems when you're wearing a helmet and are a struggle with some hair textures, especially for Black soldiers. And they caused...

ANDREA LEWIS: Tension headache.

LYDIA WARNER: Headaches.

JANELL STORE: Tension headaches.

ALEXA MAGOC: Tension headaches.

PRICE: Those 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers are Chief Warrant Officer 2 Andrea Lewis, First Lieutenant Lydia Warner, Specialist Janell Store and Corporal Alexa Magoc. That pain they describe has for years been part of the cost of being a female soldier, says Lieutenant Shelley Wagner.

SHELLEY WAGNER: If you have a female in the Army and they say like, oh, they have a headache, they're not really going to first be asked if they - have they drinking water, have they eaten? The first thing they're going to be asked is, oh, is it your bun? And we all just kind of knew it, and we're used to it because we would get headaches from our buns.

PRICE: And those headaches could get pretty bad, said Corporal Magoc.

MAGOC: There were a few times that, you know, I would go to the doctors and I'm like, you know, why is this, you know, why is this happening? And most of my problems would often get fixed when I would go home and I would let my hair down and finally just be able to relax.

PRICE: The Army began easing the regulations in winter to allow loose ponytails and braids during exercise, and most of the times a helmet was required. Now it's gone even further, effectively allowing the more comfortable hairstyles most of the time. It's not just about alleviating pain. Many get hair loss from pulling their hair so tightly. This is especially a problem for Black soldiers. Here's Chief Warrant Officer 2 Andrea Lewis.

LEWIS: I actually joke with my friends that I have to switch my part around. I switch it probably every week or every other week, because if I leave it and brush it continuously on one side for a month, my hair starts to thin, like right in the temples.

PRICE: Also allowed now are more shades of fingernail polish and discreet earrings, even while wearing combat uniforms. Several of the female soldiers at the motor pool were already wearing small diamond studs, including Lewis.

LEWIS: It is important. I think that we are submerged into a male-heavy career field and organization. So it's easy to kind of lose that femininity and lose that identity about yourself because we all, you know, have to come to work and be the same and do the same things.

PRICE: Also the name patches soldiers wear on their chests can now include things like the proper accent marks for Latino names. The changes started with efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the ranks. They were based on recommendations of a majority-female panel that included experts like dermatologists. Sergeant Major Brian Sanders is senior enlisted soldier in the Army's uniform policy branch.

BRIAN SANDERS: It wasn't just about the cosmetic and aesthetic. It was all about what makes our soldiers more functional.

PRICE: He's not kidding about the functional aspects. Shooting from a prone position wearing a bun can be hard because it can make it difficult to raise your head to see the target properly. Corporal Magoc says she's already seen an improvement just by wearing a ponytail and tucking it in her uniform.

MAGOC: I thought I was just a very bad shooter. I just thought I had a horrible shot. However, I was able to go to the range with the new regulation where you can put your ponytail in your ACU top, and I made sharpshooter for the first time in my entire life.

PRICE: There's one happier and more lethal soldier.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Fort Bragg, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "NINE BILLION NAMES... [TO A. CLARKE]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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