Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
When my good friend and colleague told me he had shaved his beard off after few weeks, I wasn’t too surprised. I presumed he had realised the upkeep was more than it was worth. However, when he told me the real reason, I was much more vocal. You see this is the first time this person has felt ‘different’, has been instantly judged and, most importantly, realised what it feels like to be made to feel that you are less competent based on something that has no link to ability.
I explained to him that this is how members of the BAME, Disabled, LGBT+ communities and women can feel every single day. We saw what an insight this offered. To be different is somehow to be less. To be exposed to such behaviours and judgements makes you want just try to conform ‘to the norm’. We hoped that by sharing this low level example with you all, we could all open our eyes to what difference really means to us.
Well that’s it! The end of the social experiment. In line with new RAF Facial Hair policy, I have worn a full beard for the last 6 weeks. For context, I am a British Caucasian Male, albeit with an existing Ayrshire twang that 23-years RAF-Service has failed to shift completely. This, however, is my RAF! I have, by and large, always fitted in. You could judge me from afar without knowing my name, and people often do, and probably you would be 80-90% correct with your assumptions.
From the 1st of September, I decided to grow a beard. The end of a self-determined two week ‘banter period’ coincided with my inspection by the Station Warrant Officer (SWO). During that first two weeks, I could understand people feeling the need to comment. It was new. It was very visible. People, who shaved every day for 20-odd years were experimenting so there was indeed a lot of ‘beard chat’. After my meeting with the SWO to check that the coverage, length and neatness complied with policy, I was confident that I had correctness on my side.
My role frequently involves visiting external units, attending meetings and delivering formal presentations. I have appeared with the beard whilst on duty at these events, although have not been involved in any ceremonial duties. Confident my beard was meeting the standards of acceptability, I openly discussed the subject of facial hair when questioned. When asked ‘why?’ I was not immediately prepared. After all, why does anyone choose to do anything to alter their appearance other than personal preference? The first response I could think of was that, through experiencing of beard growth, I, a WO, would be better placed to ‘police’ beard growth throughout my AoR, on behalf of the SWO. Another answer I prepared, for certain scenarios, was to adopt a self-deprecating stance and claim that possessing a beard would camouflage my lack of jawline. People tend to be satisfied, during ‘banter’, when one party absorbs the punchline.
Opinion varied. Some individuals reacted positively, saying a beard suited me. I privately wondered how appropriate it is to comment on the appearance of a colleague these days. I reasoned that I would be comfortable telling someone that they looked smart at a function, and this was no different. I also said to myself that if I thought someone wore a particularly garish outfit to a wedding perhaps, I would just keep the opinion to myself. It’s reasonable to accept a compliment on appearance, but to find adverse comment unwelcome.
The negative reactions were far more interesting. I am fairly resilient, after all, I’m a WO. Pre-beard, I pretty much looked like the majority of other WOs and was well within my comfort zone. That said, I have always been guarded in offering personal opinion. Like an iceberg I show people the 10% they need to see and keep 90% under the surface. I suspect many people take a similar approach. At the easier-to-manage end of the scale, the colleagues I have a healthy rapport with were happy to state their disapproval of the facial hair policy. Under the guise of ‘banter’, apparently you can discredit an individual’s appearance, as long as someone within earshot laughs. The phrase “just because it’s now legal, doesn’t mean it’s compulsory” was ‘dusted off’ by an individual (we’ll call him John). Now I will never know the hardship our LGBT+ colleagues have faced, or worryingly are still facing, in breaking down barriers to inclusivity. Also, this is merely facial hair, which is a choice, but the phrase recalls the historical MoD policy on homosexuality of which I am not proud. ‘John’ then produced a picture on his phone of two bearded gentlemen locked in a loving embrace, adding the comment “when I see your beard, this is what I think of”. Perhaps a sign of his own lack of filter, but more likely just plain, old homophobia. But it’s okay because “John’s a good lad, who just doesn’t buy into that D&I nonsense”.
What happened next was that some individuals elected to subtly remind me of my rank. Clearly, this new policy would find favour with the millennials within the organisation, such as JRs and JOs. Warrant Officers though? The last hurdle to change? The stoic, hard-liners for tradition? Surely not! As I thought about this, I estimated that I had seen 100-150 men with beards over the past six weeks. How many WOs though? None. Only me. Now I’m wondering if there is a WhatsApp group that I’m not included in that has come to an agreement, where no WO will cross the divide into ‘bearded territory’. Moreover, I started to pick up on something unsaid. Sideward disapproving glances, from unknown and un-bearded Officers and WOs. Also, people who I have met previously, on a professional level without reaching peak rapport, looked at me slightly differently, had a bit less time and used an ever-so-slightly disappointed tone.
This has caused me to reflect on my appearance. Personally, I am at new stage in my RAF career, approaching the end of an important job, which I am very proud to have had the opportunity to do. If I left the RAF tomorrow, I would look back on the largest part of my career with great fondness. I am unsure which role I will be required to serve in next and am due to have that discussion over the next few weeks. I want to continue to serve with the same level of enthusiasm and be an ambassador for change. In short, I still care very much about how I appear to people. It matters that I am respected by colleagues. I represent a trade of 300+ personnel who need me to engage across a range of areas on their behalf. I have, for a short period in my past, operated with a different attitude. An attitude that paid scant regard for other people and their opinions. This was during a darker period in my life, which I do not wish to return to any time soon. I will therefore appear clean-shaven, to avoid any risk of upsetting anyone who finds the facial hair policy offensive.
So there we have it. When provided with the chance to conform, to reduce the underhand comments, to overcome the apparent perception that he was less competent – he took it! Not because he couldn’t handle the ‘banter’ (or as we’ve heard it called… just military humour) but because of loyalty to his trade and wanting to project as the absolute best he possibly could, reducing any negative judgements made against him. Let us be mindful at this point, that a woman or member of the BAME community doesn’t have this option, LGBT+ or a person with visible and non-visible disabilities may sometimes have the option to hide their whole self, but how much effort does that take? In truth; they just have to prove themselves capable against the odds, against the difference.
For everyone to get an insight into what it feels like to belong to the minority within the UK Armed Forces in 2019 is a powerful thing that we can all learn from. Lets all examine our micro behaviours, think about the unconscious, and importantly actively promote the value that difference brings rather than celebrate our echo chambers.
Warrant Officer Sarah Cotman is an RAF nurse, whose career has predominantly been in the
clinical healthcare arena and Aeromed Evacuation roles. She is currently 22 Group Command
WO. With 20 years of experience in a mixture of NHS, single Service, Joint and Operational
areas including a recent opportunity to work with the United Nations. She is passionate about
representing Enlisted personnel and promoting inclusive cultures.