The US Army, branding, and institutional prejudice

The mantra for the US Army personal appearance has always been “neat, conservative and discreet”, of which only the second word tends to apply to the institution’s actual behaviour. It seems, though, that soldiers are not being neat, conservative and discreet enough, as they have seen fit to update their regulations. The official article on this is utterly fascinating, and there is plenty to unpick, all pointing in the direction of an institution riddled with prejudice.

First of all, the changes. The poor sods are no longer allowed to get their combat uniforms commercially pressed, instead having to take time out of murdering and oppressing to hand iron their garments. They are also banned from “eating, drinking, smoking and talking on cellphones while walking”. Visible tattoos are not allowed. Body piercings are not allowed on duty. For men, they are not allowed at any time. Likewise, men are banned from wearing any cosmetics. Women, meanwhile, are only permitted to wear “natural” make-up. Gold teeth are verboten for all. Men are allowed to carry black umbrellas (though women are not). Many of these changes also apply when in civilian dress.

Within these new regulations hangs a crackdown on indicators of queer culture–to add a little context, recall that last year Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was officially repealed, and therefore queer people are now allowed to die in pointless wars while openly queer. The sexism in the umbrella issue is also apparent: presumably women soldiers can just stand under one carried by a man. Furthermore, gold teeth are typically associated with African American culture, suggesting a degree of racism which crops up again in an example given to clarify the new regulations:

Other changes are easier to define. Chandler gave an example of a senior sergeant major who dyed her eyebrows blond. She was black, and this was clearly not her natural hair color.

The weird thing here is, I read the existing regulations. Hair can be dyed natural colour. It doesn’t specify how plausibly natural the colour can be on a specific individual, and besides, being of colour does not mean one will necessarily never have blond hair.

The justification for these changes is particularly interesting (emphasis mine):

The new rules are neither a part of drawdown nor a tool of attrition, the sergeant major said. Instead, this is a concerted effort to project professionalism in the Army uniform and brand, and give soldiers the tools they need to educate troops and enforce the standards.

Branding is everything these days. From numerous stories of employees being sacked for dyeing hair to London turning into an authoritarian dystopia to protect the Olympic brand, corporate appearance has become an obsession for those in power. What they do is irrelevant, it’s what they look like that counts.

There is a further, and equally unpleasant reason behind the new Army dress codes:

“The uniformed services, we all generally look the same. Now, if you have a tattoo that draws attention to yourself, you have to ask the question, are you a person who is committed to the Army? Because the Army says you are part of the same organization. We all generally look the same. And we do not want you to stand out from the rest of the Army. Yes, we want you to set yourself apart and do great things and so on, but that does not mean tattooing yourself or doing other extreme things that draw attention to you, the individual. You are part of something larger.”

That’s right. The classic subsuming of the individual for the good of the Party brand. The military thrives on deindividuation. If people started appearing as individuals they might–God forbid–start to act like individuals.

Their deindividuation tactics and branding, though, all hinge on a certain type of appearance, and that appearance is the complete removal of any markers of any culture that represents The Other. To all look the same, they must all look as white, heterosexual and cis as they possibly can. Any deviation towards The Other will be punished.

Of course, almost all professional dress codes have this exact purpose. In a way, we should feel relieved that finally one brand has been reasonably open about this.

One thought on “The US Army, branding, and institutional prejudice”

  1. There are similar regulations in the UK armed forces. My new brother-in-law is in the Navy, and they have a dress code which dictates what he can and cannot wear, even while on leave. Denim is entirely forbidden, collarless shirts are only allowed during exercise, they have to be clean-shaven at all times, with short, neat haircuts. All in the name of presenting a professional image, which is ironic, because their behaviour off duty is hardly a credit to the uniform. I can’t imagine that any of them would be disciplined for, for example, verbally harassing or groping a woman, which looks a lot less “professional” than wearing a pair of jeans.

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