Update: We're more than halfway through 2017, and servicemen and women are still rejoicing about the U.S. Army's lifted dreadlocks ban. Vogue interviewed a host of lieutenants, majors, and captains — including former Miss USA Deshauna Barber — on their experiences with natural hair while in uniform. “Hair is a complicated thing for women of color,” Barber said. “The new regulations show they did the research; there’s an understanding and appreciation of just how diverse our backgrounds are.”
This story was originally published on February 17, 2017.
When the U.S. Army lifted its ban on dreadlocks in January, many social media users weren’t even aware that it existed. (A little background: In 2014, the service announced that dreadlocks and two-strand twists were strictly prohibited, along with hijabs, religious beards, and turbans.) Though most were shocked to hear — because come on, it’s 2017! — Jae Johnson, an E-5 Sergeant based in Georgia, had a different sentiment: relief.
Johnson, who joined the army in 2001 and began locking in 2003, insists that her hip-length locs were always neat, something that countered the military’s regulation on “matted and unkempt” strands. She maintained her style for 11 years while moving up the ranks, including a stint at a military school to get her mechanic certification. However, once the ban was placed in 2014, Johnson was faced with a heartbreaking ultimatum.
“They started pushing,” she tells Refinery29. “For me to get my certification to graduate, they gave me the choice to either cut my hair or not graduate. They’d also kick me out.”
They started pushing...either cut my hair or not graduate...
Jae Johnson, E-5 Sergeant, U.S. Army
Sadly, the sergeant was fighting a losing battle. She pressed to keep her hair, as it’s a part of her Rastafarian religion. But she claims that the higher ups refused to recognize her faith. “It felt like they had something against me,” Johnson told us.
So on May 16, 2014, Johnson chopped off her locs and went back to class that next day, with her head lighter, but her heart heavier. “I was so emotional and ready to leave,” she reflects. “My stylist picked up my locs and put them in a bag for me.”
It’s a good thing that she saved them. As soon as Johnson found out about the ban being lifted earlier this year, she headed to Locmamas Salon in Stone Mountain, GA, for master loctician M. London to reattach her dreadlocks. London says that it’ll take at least six months for the locs to mesh unto the braids that she installed on Johnson’s hair, but we have a feeling that it’s well worth the wait.
“I missed my hair. I missed it being that long. I missed my hair being locked up,” Johnson says. “The religious aspect of the locs is a journey. You’re letting your hair grow because your journey is continuing. In a way, this was me starting a new journey.”