If you are interested in attending a Service Academy, you may be wondering about the requirements for tattoos and general grooming standards. The military wants to maintain a professional image, but a lot of the rules on both tattoos and grooming standards have evolved over the past few years as social norms within our society have evolved. This article will cover what is acceptable for each service and upcoming changes you may see soon. 

The Air Force Academy, Naval Academy, and West Point all fall back to the requirements of the larger Air Force, Navy, and Army. This makes a lot of sense since graduates will be commissioning into each service! When in doubt, find the most up to date guidance from each branch of service or talk to your liaison officer.

The biggest recent changes include the fact that locs, twists, braids, and cornrows are authorized for women. This includes ponytails and braids. These changes are huge as they represent a huge expansion in options, especially for African Americans. This policy extends across all services. 

Air Force Academy Grooming Standards

The Air Force uses Air Force Instruction 36-2903. The emphasis is giving individuals the ability to express their individual personality while still maintaining a professional appearance.

The big takeaways for the Air Force for tattoos are:

  • General rule of thumb for tattoos – you need to be able to cover up a tattoo in uniform
    • Tattoos can’t be located on hands, head, neck, face, tongue, lips, eyes, or scalp.
    • Cosmetic tattoos are allowed if they are natural-looking and “in good taste” this means you can have lip liner, eyebrows, and even eyeliner that are natural-looking.
  • Even if your tattoos aren’t easily visible, you’ll fill out a form declaring all of them (location, size, and significance) with your liaison officer.
  • No “indecent” tattoos, which advocate for:
    • Gangs, and extremist or supremacist organizations
    • Sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination

Grooming standards have recently changed to allow all natural hair colors for all ethnicities. That means that anyone can now have brown, brunette, blonde, natural red, black, or grey hair. 

There is no longer a minimum hair length for women. Women’s hair cannot touch their collar and bangs cannot touch eyebrows. 

Men cannot have hair longer than ¼ inch. Sideburns cannot go below the bottom opening of the ear. Mustaches are authorized but beards are only authorized with a shaving waiver, and up to ¼ inch of growth.

Women can paint their nails natural colors (pink, neutral), including a french manicure. They can also wear natural-looking cosmetics. Men cannot wear nail polish or cosmetics.

Women can wear gold, silver, or diamond earrings in uniform.

Naval Academy Grooming Standards

Naval Academy grooming and tattoo standards are very similar to the Air Force Academy’s requirements, especially when it comes to prohibited tattoos (anything offensive or anything visible with the uniform on).

You can find the Naval Academy’s specific guidance on grooming standards here

Women can watch this 5-minute video on what to expect with hair at USNA, which details new changes. 

The Naval Academy is slightly more restrictive than the Air Force Academy for women. Natural hair colors must be similar to the base color. Unlike USAFA, no cosmetic tattoos are authorized. 

Body piercings are not authorized in uniform, however, women can wear gold, pearl, or diamond earrings depending on the uniform. 

Naval Academy and Tattoos

For tattoos, candidates must take photos and describe any tattoos they currently have. If in a foreign language, the translation must be provided to the admissions team for approval. Should a tattoo need to be removed, the candidate must pay for the removal. 

The biggest key to remember here is that after you get approval for tattoos as an applicant, it’s important not to get any more. 

West Point Grooming Standards

West Point’s Tattoo policy is fairly straightforward. They are completely guided by the Army’s policy: Army Regulation 670-1.

  • Unauthorized Tattoo Locations:
    • On the head, neck, and face (anything above the T-shirt line to include on/inside the eyelids, mouth, and ears).
    • On the hands, fingers, and wrists (below the wrist bone).
  • Categories of Unauthorized Tattoos:
    • Extremist
    • Indecent
    • Sexist
    • Racist

Grooming standards for men and women are very similar for West Point as for the other services. 

For hair, the requirement for hair grooming standards is necessary to maintain uniformity within a military population. Many hairstyles are acceptable, as long as they are neat and conservative. 

Unlike for the other branches, for males there is no ¼” requirement listed in the Army guidance however when the hair is combed, it will not fall over the ears or eyebrows, or touch the collar, except for the closely cut hair at the back of the neck.

The general guidelines require everything to be natural looking and conservative. This includes neutral colors for cosmetics and nail polish for women.  

We hope this guidance has helped you understand the grooming standards and tattoo policies of the Service Academies and military in general. We wish you the best in your quest to commission from a Service Academy as an officer in the United States Armed Forces!

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