Many airmen with shaving profiles said that the profiles had negatively impacted their military career by disqualifying them from prestigious positions, leadership opportunities, or awards, according to a new study published in the journal Military Medicine.
Led by several Air Force doctors, the study heard from many airmen who said a shaving waiver had barred them from opportunities such as Honor Guard duty, the Air Force Band, Air Force recruiting positions, and Airman Leadership School instructor positions, all of which are career fields or duties with historically high rates of promotion, the study authors wrote. Other airmen said that they were looked down upon by their commanders and colleagues.
Compounding the problem is the fact that 63% of the respondents who reported a perceived shaving profile bias identified as Black, the report found. Of the rest, 18% identified as white, 14% as Hispanic and 5% as Latino.
“[T]here is, at a minimum, a perception among USAF active duty members who have been on a shaving profile that not being able to closely shave has negatively affected their career and that this disproportionately affects members of skin of color,” the study authors wrote. “This might impact the decisions they made about their careers and the experience that they had while on active duty.”
First shared on the popular Facebook page Air Force amn/nco/snco, the study comes six months after the Air Force officially approved five-year shaving waivers for airmen with pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB) — also known as razor bumps — a skin irritation that leaves dark raised scars and can be painful. The policy mandated that facial hair cannot exceed one-quarter of an inch.
Like its sister services, the Air Force expects male members to maintain zero visible facial hair, other than a neatly-maintained mustache. However, for those airmen with PFB, the military’s strict grooming standards can pose a challenge. Though PFB can be treated with topical treatments or laser hair removal, the most effective treatment is by allowing some beard growth instead of a clean shave, the study authors wrote.
For this reason, the Air Force issues shaving waivers, known as a shaving profile, for airmen who have PFB, other skin conditions, or a religious accommodation. But the authors cited the anecdotal experience of airmen affected by PFB who continued to shave to avoid the negative perceptions associated with being on a shaving profile.
“Regardless of the reasons for having shaving standards, when commanders and non-affected service members do not understand that PFB is a chronic medical condition that precludes close shaving, a perception can form that members with PFB are simply not trying or do not want to conform to standards,” they wrote. “This, in turn, can lead to unfair treatment of these individuals.”
The negative perception or bias is especially relevant because PFB is most commonly found in Black men. This new study comes on the heels of a sweeping Air Force review of racial disparity within the ranks — a review which found Black service members are disproportionately punished compared to their white peers.
To study the issue, the study authors sent 14-question surveys to dermatology and primary care clinics at five Air Force installations around the world. The questions asked about the airman’s current or past shaving profiles, skin type, race, ethnicity, level of education, disciplinary action(s), and other relevant information.
798 airmen responded, of whom 299 (37.5%) had a current or past shaving profile. Of those 299 respondents, 64 (21.4%) said a shaving profile had negatively impacted their military career. Of those 64 respondents, nearly half said they perceived a negative impact on leadership opportunities, and 21 said they perceived a negative impact on receiving awards.
Respondents also listed specific experiences where they were turned away from Honor Guard duty, the Thunderbirds demonstration team, or other jobs that require “some iteration of needing to have an outstanding military appearance,” authors wrote.
The number of respondents in this survey may be small, but the fact that 21.4% of those who had been on a shaving profile reported a negative stigma “is a concerning finding,” authors wrote. Past studies of facial hair in the military in 1974 and 1979 also detected that stigma.
“[A] young Black G.I. recently had a bar to re-enlistment instituted against him, only because he had a profile authorizing him to wear a therapeutic beard for PFB,” wrote Maj. Alvin Alexander and Dr. Walter Delph in a 1974 paper on PFB in the military for the Journal of the National Medical Association. “This man had an outstanding service record and after eight years of service was planning an Army career. Being unfairly forced to choose between proper treatment of his skin condition and the termination of his career, the man chose to resume shaving in spite of its consequences. This is just an example of the harassing tactics being used by some Army personnel against Black soldiers with PFB.”
Alexander and Delph went on to argue against the military’s ban on beards.
“[J]ust for the sake of it, what is “unmilitary” about wearing a beard?” they wrote. A later study seemed to agree with their findings.
“Career black enlistees are likely to under-report the severity of their disease and not seek medical help, possibly because of fear of continuous harassment and inability to be promoted by their superiors,” wrote JB Brauner and KL Flandermeyer in their own paper on the topic in 1979.
The authors of this most recent study noted the military’s need for a close shave so that gas masks or oxygen masks can fit with proper tightness. However, they pointed out that they were not aware of studies evaluating the fit of military-grade gas masks with beards, and there has been at least one study showing that half-face respirators can seal for the vast majority of individuals with 1/8th inch of beard growth or less.
Studies like this are part of the reason why the authors plan on expanding the survey by putting it online for more people to respond, though the authors did not say when that would happen.
“As our nation and the DoD continue to evolve and address issues regarding race and diversity among our population, we believe that current events mandate continuation of our investigation in order to accurately understand and potentially recommend USAF shaving standards that are data-driven,” they wrote.