Correction: This story was updated at 6:53 p.m. to reflect correct information about religious waivers for beards.
Many airmen’s dearest wish may soon come true if the Air Force greenlights a pilot program allowing some men to grow beards.
The idea would let participating airmen sport well-kept beards no longer than one-quarter inch, Military.com first reported Monday. That matches the length allowed for people who are medically exempt from the requirement to be clean-shaven.
Service spokesperson Ann Stefanek said the proposal is under discussion by the Black/African American Employment Strategy Team, but hasn’t been approved.
“There is no potential timeline for approval, because it isn’t even at that stage,” she said. “This is a volunteer’s proposal.”
The group is one of the Air Force’s volunteer teams that considers ways to make policies more equitable for all airmen.
So far, the Air Force has banned beards for all except those who have five-year medical waivers for pseudofolliculitis barbae, or chronic razor bumps, or religious waivers for those for whom beards are central to their observance, like Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Norse Heathens. Religious exemptions to the rule allow for beards up to 2 inches long.
It’s unclear how many people currently use shaving waivers.
Black men disproportionately suffer from the ingrown hairs that cause painful razor bumps, either precluding them from shaving more regularly or forcing them to suffer and, in some cases, endure scarring. Anecdotal evidence and a July 2021 study in the journal Military Medicine indicate that airmen with shaving waivers are more often passed over for promotions and other professional opportunities because of their appearance.
Beards are generally frowned upon because of the U.S. military’s longstanding tradition of uniformity and attention to detail as well as concerns that certain gear, like gas masks, wouldn’t tightly seal with hair in the way.
If the idea moves forward, participating airmen and guardians would become the subject of a research project whose data could convince high-level Pentagon officials to allow more flexibility on facial hair.
One Facebook commenter questioned why the Air Force needs a separate pilot program when it could study those who already have shaving waivers. Others mused that more people would enlist if beards were allowed.
“Beards should have been approved years ago,” Facebook commenter Heather Britten wrote. “Imagine the man-hours saved when men don’t have to go to the doctor to get approved for a shaving waiver, and then periodically renewed.”
Daniel Walker, another Facebook user, added: “They keep relaxing grooming standards instead of giving us things that would actually increase our quality of life.”
“Would beards be nice? Sure, but how about competitive pay and benefits? Less of having to work with skeleton crews,” he said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.