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Airmen who need to grow out their facial hair in uniform can take heart that the top enlisted airman, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, wants to reduce the branch’s cultural bias against shaving waivers granted for medical or religious reasons.

“We are working to take away the stigma attached to airmen who have a medical need or a religious accommodation for facial hair,” Bass wrote in a comment on her Facebook page on Tuesday. The comment, which was also shared on the popular Facebook page Air Force amn/nco/snco, was made in response to a selfie she posted of herself alongside Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall and Airman 1st Class Kyle Voss-McReynolds, who was the leadership team’s driver during a recent event and who also wears a beard in uniform.

The Air Force currently prohibits service members from growing beards unless they are granted a religious or medical waiver, a policy that has come under scrutiny lately after military doctors studied its discriminatory effect on Black airmen

“[T]he promotion system is not necessarily inherently racially biased, but instead biased against the presence of facial hair which will likely always affect the promotions of Blacks/African-Americans disproportionately because of the relatively higher need for shaving waivers in this population,” wrote the authors of a recent Air Force study.

The Air Force’s top enlisted leader wants to ‘take away the stigma’ of beard waivers
332d Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron train on counter drone tactics against small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, September 6, 2022. (Tech. Sgt. Jeffery Foster/U.S. Air Force)

The study, which was published in July 2021, pointed out that many of the airmen who apply for medical shaving waivers are Black, because Black men are more likely to be affected by pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB) — commonly referred to as razor bumps — than White men. PFB is a skin condition that makes shaving painful and can lead to permanent scarring if the skin is not allowed to heal, which makes it a common reason for receiving a shaving waiver.

Despite being in line with regulations, airmen with waivers reported feeling stigmatized for wearing facial hair. The 2021 study found that airmen with shaving waivers faced significantly longer wait times for promotions and were often barred from sought-after jobs such as Honor Guard, recruiting, military training instructors, or the Thunderbirds demonstration team. 

The conventional view of facial hair is that it looks unprofessional in uniform.

“I was the typical senior leader chief that didn’t think airmen with a shaving waiver belonged in the front office,” one of the branch’s most beloved former senior leaders, retired Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, said in April on a panel discussion on male grooming standards in the Air Force. Wright said he was opposed to facial hair in the Air Force for 29 of his 32 years in service.

“I had opportunities to hire all kinds of folks and I was adamant about not hiring somebody with a shaving waiver, just because I fell into that category of ‘this is Air Force policy, it’s not professional,’” he said. 

The Air Force’s top enlisted leader wants to ‘take away the stigma’ of beard waivers
Airman 1st Class Braxton Comer, a student services technician with the Community College of the Air Force and practicing Norse Pagan, poses for a photo in the CCAF building on Maxwell-Gunter Annex, Alabama, July 27, 2021. Comer requested a religious accommodation waiver for the wear of a beard to express his religious beliefs and received approval in June 2021. (Airman 1st Class Jackson Manske/U.S. Air Force)

Wright, who is Black, said he resolved his own shaving irritation by learning how to shave in a way that would not irritate his skin, so he assumed other airmen would be able to resolve their irritation the same way.

“I was willfully ignorant about the impact it was having on young Black men,” he said. “Some of it was because I just ignored it, some of it was because I wanted these young men to do what I did: just suck it up and figure it out and you’ll be fine.”

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It was only after becoming the top enlisted airman that Wright met fellow airmen for whom being clean-shaven was impossible without immense pain and skin damage. Those encounters, along with studies like the one published last year, convinced Wright to change his position. The problem is how to convince the rest of the Air Force to follow suit.

Changing policy, “actually is the easy part,” Wright said. “The real challenge is ‘how do you change the culture, not just in the Air Force but in the services period.’”

Chief Bass’ comment demonstrates her commitment to changing the culture, and there seems to be some progress already. In December, Military.com reported that the Air Force Honor Guard changed its policy in April to allow airmen with shaving waivers to apply and join the guard. Since then, 21 Honor Guard airmen now have a pass to grow neatly-trimmed beards, according to Military.com.

Still, it seems the Honor Guard has not completely embraced shaving waivers. Airmen in the guard with waivers can wear beards in Air Force ceremonies and duties, but not as part of a joint service honor guard with another branch, Military.com reported.

In August, images posted on Air Force amn/nco/snco teased a pilot program for “inclusive male grooming standards” which would allow service members to grow neatly-kept facial hair up to a quarter-inch in length, according to Air & Space Forces Magazine. That was followed up by more leaked slides in October which promised that an updated facial hair standard would be considered at a November meeting of the Air Force Uniform Board, Coffee or Die Magazine reported

Any recommendations made by the board would then have to be approved by Air Force senior leadership, a service spokesperson told Coffee or Die at the time.

The Air Force’s top enlisted leader wants to ‘take away the stigma’ of beard waivers
U.S. Air Force Airmen with the Moody Air Force Base Honor Guard present colors at the 81st deactivation ceremony at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, Dec. 5, 2022. (Airman 1st Class Whitney Gillespie/U.S. Air Force)

When asked about specific efforts for removing the stigma regarding waivers, an Air Force spokesperson told Task & Purpose that the Air Force changed AFI 36-2903, its regulation governing dress and appearance standards., earlier this spring to allow airmen with a shaving profile “to trim and shape their facial hair,” and to allow airmen with profiles to apply for more positions in the service.

“The Air Force is committed to continuing to remove barriers that prevent airmen from applying for, and being accepted into, career broadening opportunities,” Bass said in a statement sent to Task & Purpose. “At the end of the day, while we are continually out in front with initiatives that provide more opportunities for our airmen to serve to their full potential, we are cognizant that we are part of a broader military force.”

The last sentence indicates that Air Force senior leadership wants to be in sync with other services on major changes in facial hair policy. Many airmen on social media called for abandoning the beard prohibition altogether. The services often claim that facial hair interferes with the seal of a gas mask, but an Air Force doctor has found no direct scientific evidence to support that claim.

“It’s an unsubstantiated claim,” dermatologist Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie told Task & Purpose in May. While supporters of current Air Force policy “may have anecdotal evidence of one to five people who they see fail the fit test,” he said, “that can’t be extrapolated to hundreds of thousands of airmen.”

The NATO allies who allow their service members to grow beards also do not have studies showing the impact of facial hair on gas masks, Ritchie said. One civilian study from 2018 showed that 98% of study participants with an eighth-inch of beard passed the fit test with respirators that are similar to the M-50 gas masks used in the military in terms of material and fit. Still, Ritchie called for a study to come up with a conclusive answer. The study would require only 100 to 150 service members, he said.

“We don’t have to hire RAND or Booz Allen Hamilton to do it, but the Air Force needs to want it to happen,” he said at the time.

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