The Army released a sweeping update to grooming and appearance regulations on Tuesday that, in addition to
authorizing religious beards and head coverings
, also opened the door for female soldiers to wear their hair in dreadlocks.
The services have grappled with the issue of black women's hair in recent years, as some argued that the hair regulations put an undue burden on those with thick, coarse hair, forcing many women to spend time, money and discomfort on straightening or wigs if they didn't choose to chop it all off.
The Army's compromise is now to let women wear dreadlocks along the same guidelines already allowed for braids, cornrows and twists. That is, they must be of uniform size and shape, evenly spaced, and up to 1/2 inch in width.
Those rules came down in late 2014, after a regulation change earlier that year banned twists outright.
At the time, the changes prompted backlash from some black soldiers, who expressed concern that the rules were unfair and effectively outlawed natural hair. A sergeant in the National Guard took another measure: she petitioned the White House, calling for the commander in chief to order reconsideration of the rules.
The Army defended its decision, saying hundreds of women were involved in the process of developing the new female hair standards.
Members of Congress subsequently intervened by calling for action by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who ordered a Pentagon-wide review of hair policies.
As a result of the review, the Army went back and undid that move while revamping rules for several other hairstyles popular with black women, though dreadlocks remained off the table.