Shave waivers disproportionately affect black aviators, delay promotions

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As active-duty dermatologists in the United States Air Force, we call on our service leaders to re-evaluate policies that ban facial hair growth in male members. Among authors, it has been widely accepted for years that these regulations probably do not improve readiness, but rather lead to a discriminatory effect against shave waiver holders that particularly affects our black / African American members.

Black / African American men tend to be on shaving waivers more often than members of other racial / ethnic groups due to a medical condition called pseudofolliculitis of the beard (PFB). Unlike the simple irritation caused by shaving, PFB results in painful, deep scar-like bumps on the face and / or neck when facial hair is clipped too closely. Contrary to popular belief, PFB is often not manageable with anything other than a shave profile that allows for short hair growth. The idea that these limbs simply need to learn how to shave the right way is factually incorrect and contradicts what we as dermatologists know about this condition.

Concerns previously raised by military dermatologists were based on countless clinical experiences, with Airmen telling us about their perceptions of how being on a shave waiver affected their time in the USAF. Members are sometimes excluded from their units, looked down upon by leaders, questioned about their integrity, left behind by opportunities, or excluded from special duties. We are also seeing Airmen who have a clear medical need for a waiver but refuse to take one because they are concerned about the impact it might have on their careers. These limbs experience painful facial breakouts and scarring – or may even choose to have laser hair removal even if they don’t really want to permanently alter their facial hair.

Our renewed call to review these policies is no longer just based on anecdotes – an article published in the Journal of Military Medicine in July demonstrated a significant association between shaving waivers and promotion delays. While this affected members of all races, it disproportionately affected Black / African American members because they were more often out of line than any other racial group. The study on which this association is based draws on survey data from more than 10,000 active-duty male members of the USAF from facilities around the world and represents the best available data on the subject at our knowledge to date.

We are well aware of the common argument against allowing facial hair: it prevents the tightness of a gas mask, aviator mask or respirator. To be succinct, the data on this subject is far from complete. We don’t know the minimum beard length needed to control PFB, so we have not tested this specific beard length on specific military masks. In our opinion, as experienced military dermatologists, an eighth of an inch of beard length is normally sufficient to control PFB and there is data showing that up to 98% of people tested for a civilian respirator suitable for this length of beard. beard can successfully achieve a seal. . Clinical studies to determine the minimum length and then test that length for mask tightness would be easy and very inexpensive to perform. If the results of these studies corroborate data from the civilian sector, then this could serve as a starting point for possibly implementing changes to our facial hair policies that make sense and end discrimination against our black members. African Americans.

We are also aware that there is abuse of profile shaving, which is often the cause of concern for commanders. There are limbs on them that don’t really need to be, and some limbs on the waivers choose to allow the beard to grow to a length or in a way that is beyond what is needed to avoid discomfort. Our suggestion is not to allow beards of any style or length, but rather that through careful research we can develop regulations that allow a narrow range of facial hair options that maintain a professional appearance, promote preparedness and eliminate a source of racial discrimination.

As the world’s leading air and space force, we cannot afford to ignore the talents in our ranks, and we cannot afford to lose members due to a settlement that may not help preperation. We need to continually re-evaluate policies as new data emerges to make sure it remains value-added. If they don’t, we must be prepared to ditch these cumbersome regulations no matter how difficult the culture change that comes with it. In the words of Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown, we must “accelerate change or lose”. We believe these proposed changes will help ensure that we continue to have the most professional, ready and fairest air and space force in the world, ready to meet any challenges presented to us.

Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie is an active-duty dermatologist in the US Air Force. He leads a small team of other clinicians who recently completed a study published in the Journal of Military Medicine regarding shaving waivers in the USAF and their impact on promotion rates.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States government, Department of Defense, or the United States Air Force.

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial and as such the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond or would like to submit your own editorial, please contact Military Times Senior Editor Howard Altman, [email protected].


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