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Neck tattoos are here to stay in the Air Force. But still no beards

The Air Force updated its rulebook for uniforms, including tattoos, walking with coffee and nail polish guidelines. But no sign of beards.
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The Air Force's latest update to its uniform regulation allows more leniant tattoo rules, walking with coffee and clearer guidance on nail polish. Photo by Army Private Carlynn M. Knaak.

In the Air Force, you can now officially have tattoos on your neck, drink your coffee while walking and not salute your boss when you drop your kids off at daycare, according to newly updated dress and appearance regulations released Thursday.

But you still can’t grow a beard.

The Air Force released an update on Feb. 29 to its 150-page rulebook known as DAFI 36-2903 that governs the uniforms, appearance and grooming standards of all Air Force members. Though the revised regulation has no brand new rules, according to an Air Force spokesperson, it permanently adopts about two dozen changes and clarifications on uniforms and grooming that the services has approved over the last two years.

Those include more lenient rules on tattoos, including for the hands and neck. In both cases, a tattoo must be smaller than an inch in any direction. Neck tattoos must be on the back of the neck, while Airman can have one tattoo on each hand, plus a single ring tattoo.

“We’ve reviewed the policy in whole to make certain we are communicating standards clearly, making it an easier tool for commanders, supervisors, Airmen and Guardians,” said Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services. “Revisions were made over a number of years, but we felt the need to revisit the entire document to remove redundancies, out-of-date information and decrease subjectivity.”

The updated rules cover a number of minor issues like the wear of specific badges, nametags, and morale shirts, but one rule change could start affecting many airmen the next time they walk across a parking lot while still finishing their morning coffee.

You can now drink a beverage while walking in uniform, Air Force spokesperson Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman told Task & Purpose.

“Previously all you could walk with was water,” said Heitzman. “This lets you drink coffee, energy drinks, soda, fun stuff like that.”

Several other changes clarified or adjusted rules that applied only to women, including:

  • Women can now wear slacks rather than skirts with the ‘mess dress,’ a formal uniform rarely worn on duty but often required at official events and ceremonies.
  • Pregnant airman can now wear some commercially-produced cold weather gear.
  • Headgear rules now include a note on a change in military courtesies, noting that on-base child and day care facilities are now “designated as ‘no-hat, no-salute’ areas.”

“This was a big finding that came out of a barrier analysis working group,” said Heitzman, referring to a working committee that examined uniform and other rules that disproportionately impacted women. “It’s hard to worry about rendering a salute when you have two kids in your hands.”

A chart in an updated DAFI 36-2903 regulation provides a visual key for approved and unapproved nail polish.

The regulation also now contains an updated chart on permitted nail polish colors. While previous versions contained only vague language about “subdued” hues, the new regs include a full-color chart of 60 approved colors, ranging from various skin tones to dark pink to an olive green. However, a second chart makes clear that brighter colors and nails with designs sparkles or designs are ruled out.

But missing from the update was any hint that the Air Force might soon relent on beards, a longtime desire among many.

“Beards were not approved in the 102nd Uniform Board, which happened in March 2023,” an official statement said. “Reasons provided to support beards rested on concerns that wearing a beard causes disparity in our ranks. To combat the disparity, we opened career fields except for those with Occupational and Health and Administration requirements, eliminating assignment limitations for those with approved accommodations and expanding opportunities to Airmen with accommodations. We continue to review and approve (where appropriate) medical and religious accommodation requests to wear beards.”

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