Military policy on beards can be a divisive topic, with suggestions of relaxing policy to promote inclusivity leaving many current and former members of the Armed Forces bristling over a lack of discipline and lowering standards.
In September 2019, the Royal Air Force for the first time allowed its personnel to grow beards under new rules introduced in an effort to broaden its recruitment pool and promote inclusivity, but it insists that personnel still have to maintain high standards of appearance.
The British Army's policy on facial hair has also been under the public spotlight, especially following suggestions that potential recruits could be put off joining up because they cannot sport a beard under existing policies.
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Britain is not the only country to examine its policy on facial hair, with the Canadian National Defence announcing its own relaxing of rules on beards, and reports in the United States that its military policy had been challenged by a soldier wishing to wear a beard due to his beliefs as a Norse pagan.
In Britain, the services' policy on dress regulations is "routinely" reviewed – a point that came to light following comments by Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Emmerson who responded to a letter in Soldier magazine, suggesting the British Army's policy could change at some point to reflect changing attitudes.
What does the Ministry of Defence say about facial hair and appearance?
An Army spokesperson said:
"There has been no change in Army policy regarding beards, which can only be grown with the Commanding Officer's authority. Exceptions are usually only granted on medical or religious grounds, or where tradition permits."
The regulations state:
Hair is to be groomed such that its length does not reach to the collar or onto the ears.
The same applies where twists, locks or cornrows are worn unless worn for religious reasons.
Beard or no beard?
Men are to be clean-shaven but moustaches and beards may be worn.
If a moustache is worn, it is to be trimmed and not below the line of the lower lip.
Beards and whiskers are only to be worn with the CO's authority, which will usually be granted only on medical or religious grounds, or where tradition permits.
The appearance of the beard and whiskers is to be neat and tidy.
How about sideburns?
Sideburns are not to descend below the mid-point of the ear and are to be trimmed horizontally.
The Commanding Officer may permit all Naval Service (except Royal Marines) male personnel to request to wear full set beards.
Royal Marines male personnel may wear moustaches at their discretion.
Beards and moustaches shall be kept neatly trimmed especially, in the case of beards, at the lower neck and cheekbones.
It is within the subjective judgement of the Command (and delegated representatives, namely the Executive Dept and all personnel in positions of authority (LH/LCpl and above)) to define an acceptable appearance of a beard or moustache, as much depends on the features of the individual.
However, as a guide the following characteristics are not acceptable:
Designer stubble is assessed as any beard length shorter than Grade 1 (2.5mm).
Beards of uneven growth or determined to be 'scrappy'
The definition of 'scrappy' remains within the subjective judgement of the Command (and delegated representatives, namely the Executive Dept and all personnel in positions of authority (LH/LCpl and above)).
Long 'hipster' beards or 'handlebar' moustaches
Extended or 'hipster’=' beards or 'handlebar'/extended moustaches are not appropriate. The maximum acceptable length of a beard is to be Grade 8 (25.5mm).
Slow growing beards
The definition of an 'excessive amount of time to grow' remains within the subjective judgement of the Command (and delegated representatives, namely the Executive Dept and all personnel in positions of authority (LH/LCpl and above). The advised maximum time for an individual to grow a sufficiently thorough beard is two weeks.
Religious or faith reasons
Where facial hair is grown as a tenet of faith by a genuine adherence to that faith, it may be grown in excess of the limit described above at para (3). Such facial hair may require to be trimmed, however, or be tied up or removed if it undermines the health and safety of the wearer or others in the unit, or if it undermines the operational effectiveness of the unit. Any faith or practice must be clearly established by an individual and not simply deemed as having been undertaken in order to defy the regulations.
It is important to note that when the safety of an individual might be jeopardised by their beard or moustache, such as in the wearing of oxygen or gas masks, it shall be modified in such a fashion as to accommodate the type of equipment to be worn. The Commanding Officer retains the authority to determine the requirement for an individual to shave, based on the Operational requirement at that time.
Royal Air Force
In 2019, the RAF updated its guidelines around facial hair, allowing personnel to grow beards for the first time in the service's history.
All RAF personnel are permitted to grow a full set beard – a beard and moustache. In order to do so, a request must be made to the Commanding Officer in writing prior to any growth of facial hair.
Only full beards that are kept short and neatly trimmed will be permitted and the Station Warrant Officer, on behalf of the Station Commander, will act as the final arbiter of what is, or is not, acceptable.
The following characteristics of beards are generally not permitted:
Slow growing beards
The definition of an 'excessive amount of time to grow' remains within the subjective judgement of the Chain of Command (CoC). The advised maximum time to grow a sufficiently thorough beard is two weeks. RAF personnel are permitted to grow their beards while on duty.
Any beard length shorter than Grade 1 (2.5mm) is not permitted. This does not include the grace period detailed above.
Beards of uneven growth/coverage
The definition of 'uneven growth/coverage' remains within the subjective judgement of the CoC.
Longer-length hair growth/'hipster' beards
Longer-length facial hair growth is not acceptable. The maximum acceptable length of a beard is Grade 8 (25.5mm).
Unnatural colouring of beards
If facial hair is dyed or highlighted, the colour is to be natural and in a uniform shade appropriate to the features of the individual.
Faith or religion
In addition, the wearing of a beard as a tenet of a faith which do not comply with the criteria above remains permitted. Directions as to how they may be worn can be sought from the HQ Air Diversity and Inclusion Team.