When Petty Officer 1st Class Jacqualynn Leak couldn't stand to wear her wig over her locs in the heat any longer, she set out to change the Navy hair regulations that required it. “My hair was in a wig 10 hours out of the day, and it made me feel like I couldn't be myself,” she tells Refinery29. “I was hiding a part of who I am." Leak had been covering her locs under a hair piece ever since she joined the Navy in 2009. Fast forward to 2018, and she can now wear her natural hair with pride — and without reprimand.
In the past, women in the Navy were restricted to a few styles while on the clock. According to these appearance rules (it should be noted that men have separate guidelines), women could only style their hair in bob cuts, groomed buns, and cornrows. Anything else would result in the request of a hair change or even worse, getting discharged. Left off the approved style list? Many protective styles, like locs and box braids, as well as practical styles you'd think would be desirable while in the field, like ponytails and French braids. These were all seen as time-consuming or unhygienic, according to Leak. "Ignorance is the culprit in all of this," she says. "All of it comes from a lack of understanding and not knowing what locs really are."
If these restrictions sound familiar, it's because a similar movement happened in the Army last year. The Army revised its grooming and appearance regulations in January 2017, a decision that came three years after a White House petition generated over 13,000 signatures and widespread backlash that included Black female lawmakers.
Once Leak saw the changes happening in other branches of the military, she knew it was time for the Navy to make a similar move toward policies that accepted hairstyles traditionally worn by women of color. Leak knew she needed to come correct if she was going to fight against a military ruling that’s been in place for decades, so she spent months building her case.
To start, Leak did a substantial amount of research, seeking out the help of Navy Facebook groups and surveying dozens of Black female sailors. Her hope was that once she gathered this info, she could better educate those in her chain of command about the differences in hair textures and styles. And although many African Americans found the hair regulations of the Army to be racially biased, Leak feels that it doesn't have to do with race but more so the lack of education.
"With something as controversial and misunderstood as dreadlocks and loc styles, a lot of people, even people of [color], don't know what locs are, so they have this misconception that locs are dirty, unkempt, and unclean," she says. "I wanted to make sure that people who may not be exposed to [locs] knew what it was. If I know how someone thinks and why they think that way, it's easier for me to educate."
Leak posted polls on Facebook groups and military natural hair groups to get other servicewomen’s stories. It was in these forums that she was connected with First Lieutenant Whennah Andrews of the U.S. Army National Guard, who had spent years advocating against the Army's grooming regulations. Andrews was able to give Leak all the insight she needed to go forward with her case and inspired Leak to reach out to multiple locticians — specialists in locs and maintaining them — to get their perspective.
In making her case, she had to make sure to gather all the background information that she could so that it'd be difficult for the Navy to fight back on her argument. “I made sure that I did everything [so that I could] oppose them when I got the reason why [they weren't allowing locs],” she says. “I wanted to make it so that if you tell me ‘no,’ then it's a racially-motivated thing, which I was hoping wasn't the case."
As a result of all her hard work, Leak was asked to join the working group building the case for new Navy hair regulations as the loc expert. Her research was submitted to the Vice Chief of Navy Operations in April. And in just two months, on July 12, the U.S. Navy announced its new hair rules, which included the approval of locs, ponytails, styled buns, and braids.
Leak has been celebrating by wearing her locs in many different styles. "I have worn my hair braided back in a big French braid and in a bun. I have a short curly style right now, so I'm really embracing it,” she says. “It's so great to be versatile without having to cover my natural hair.”
It's only been a little over two months since the reversal of these bans, but Leak says that she's already seeing the positive changes in her fleet. “There are so many women that have taken off wigs or went and got their locs,” she says. “In one month, I've known at least five people that decided to go and get their locs installed, so a lot of women are embracing the journey."
Looking at this positive change, Leak is appreciative of how far she has come, giving thanks to the Navy for standing for inclusivity. “I have not worn a wig in a month while in uniform, and it feels so good," she says. However, it's not just about being able to wear her hair comfortably or trying out different styles, it's also about being able to present her true identity, in or out of uniform. "My hair is still a part of me, it's still a part of my personality. It's a way for me to express who I am in today's world,” she says. “I personally enjoy being me, especially when I'm in a uniform and I blend in with everybody else."
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