A Skin Condition Makes It Hard For Some Black Men To Shave — And Get Ahead In The Military
Some Air Force members say they're facing discrimination because it's hard for them to shave their faces daily. Many have a skin condition that's especially common among Black men.
Tech Sgt. Joshua Nixon joined the Air Force in 2011 in hopes of becoming a recruiter like his older brother. He excelled in training, won numerous awards, and never got in trouble. But the then 19-year-old struggled to keep up with the Air Force requirement that he shave his face every day.
The hair in his beard area would curl back on itself, irritating his skin. With each pass of the razor, it got more inflamed.
"I was getting so many bumps," Nixon said. "If you don't take a needle and get that hair out and straighten it and pull it, then it can just continue to grow and get infected."
A doctor diagnosed Nixon, who is Black, with pseudofolliculitis barbae or PFB. It's a skin condition that causes painful, acne-like bumps which often scar. The condition disproportionally affects Black men. Though creams and new shaving techniques sometimes help, the only real treatment is not to shave so closely.
The Air Force granted Nixon a shaving profile, a waiver that allowed him to wear some short facial hair. But because of that, he found himself out of the running for certain opportunities, including the recruiting job he wanted so badly.
"My commander was like, 'Yes, you're the perfect ideal. You're great with people,'" Nixon said. "But I was turned down because I had a shaving waiver. That's what made me look at everything differently. On paper, I'm the perfect airman. But because I have this medical diagnosis, I can't represent the Air Force in that aspect."
According to a recent study from the journal Military Medicine, other airmen with shaving profiles share Nixon's frustration. In a survey, some said the profiles had hurt their military careers by disqualifying them from prestigious positions, leadership opportunities, or awards. Others said they were singled out or looked down upon by their commanders and colleagues.
63% of those who perceived a negative bias were Black.
"Unfortunately, I do believe there's a history of people who do not understand that PFB is a chronic medical condition," said Dr. Emily Wong, an Air Force dermatologist with the 59th Medical Wing at Joint Base San Antonio, who was one of the surveyors. "The perception is that those members are not trying, or they're not conforming to standards, or that they're just lazy and don't want to shave."
Shaving profiles are medical recommendations, and commanders have ultimate authority over whether to accept the recommendation.
Many of the airmen in the study said they were barred from positions where facial hair isn't a physical impediment, like recruiting, teaching, or playing in the Air Force Band. Others said they couldn't join the Honor Guard, an elite unit that performs drill routines at high-profile events. All are career fields or duties with historically high rates of promotion.
Honor Guard policy allows airmen with shaving profiles to serve, but they still have to shave before ceremonies. In other words, it treats shaving profiles as temporary, like a broken finger or other injury.
"It's really a uniformity thing," said Lt. Col. Jason Woodruff, head of the organization. "It's a medical profile. Just like every other medical profile, the expectation is that they're not going to be on it for a long time - that they're striving to get off that profile."
Until a couple years ago, the Honor Guard reassigned people with long-term medical shaving waivers. Now, Woodruff says it tries to work with them and their dermatologists to find a manageable shaving regimen, even if that means shaving only a few times a week. He adds that 27 percent of airmen in the Honor Guard are Black and that no one has been kicked out due to a shaving waiver since he took command.
Woodruff's second in command, Chief Master Sgt. Dorian Dillon, said the Honor Guard tries to represent the Air Force's people while respecting its standards.
"We pride ourselves in diversity when we recruit. It's important to us, when we perform, that our demographics reflect the demographics of the Air Force," Dillon said.
"But it's important that we represent the Air Force standards, and we exceed those standards. Although there are folks who have temporary medical profiles, we don't project those to the public."
The Air Force recruiting command also has changed its policy. It started accepting people with shaving waivers in 2019 to, "increase opportunity for those who were otherwise qualified."
59th Medical Wing dermatologist Dr. Wong said she credits Air Force commands that are trying to understand the issue. But she expressed concern about the Honor Guard's decision to treat shaving waivers as temporary, saying it could cause airmen undue distress.
"There is a spectrum. Not everybody's going to be able to meet those standards," Wong said. "Or they might feel really pressured to deal with pain or flare-ups from shaving, because they don't want to bring it up."
The Air Force is now conducting a larger survey to learn more about the effects of shaving profiles, including whether they impact promotion rates, especially among Black men.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.