My generation heard it countless times from church officials, teachers, parents, and other supposed figures of authority: “You shouldn’t get tattoo or piercings, and you shouldn’t dye or cut your hair in an odd fashion because you won’t be taken seriously and you’ll never get a good job. You should never be anything but professional in your appearance.” Which equates to “We don’t understand young people’s style, we don’t want to understand it, we just don’t like it because it is different, be a ‘model citizen’, repent and conform.” While this attitude towards what is, at it’s most basic, self-expression through art was more prevalent decades ago, it continues to be a thorn in the side of many people trying to make an honest living to this day. The excuses you hear will be numerous, but the most popular ones are that these harmless forms of self-expression are seen as “trashy”, “rebellious”, “aggressive”, “weird”, or “unprofessional”. While tattoos were the mark of the lovable rebel back in the day, we are in the year 2015, where in most of the modern world self-expression is encouraged and admired. Some people just do it differently. Consider this one woman’s call to eradicate the stigma still placed on these people in the workplace. It is time to stop sugar coating it and see it for what it is: an attempt to force people to conform and be someone else, “punishment” if they step “out of line”, and blatant discrimination against self-expression.
First I offer a bit of history for your reading pleasure regarding the most prevalent object of judgment, tattoos. According to Wikipedia, Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant, was the first recorded professional tattoo artist in the United States. In 1846 he opened a shop in New York City, and he became very popular during the American Civil War with soldiers and sailors on both sides of the conflict. He traveled from camp to camp to perform his services, which began the tradition of American military members receiving tattoos. Tattoos were popular and considered chic with upper-class young adults until the beginning of World War I. The electric tattoo gun was invented in 1891 by Samuel O’Reilly. Tattoos became less expensive and more efficient, ergo the tattoo was no longer the mark of only the wealthy. This ushered in the shift of symbolism to the stigma we see remnants of today.
Now that we know part of how we arrived at this level of prejudice, I want to focus on why I feel that myself and others like me are being unfairly discriminated against, and why it has to stop. There are many forms of prejudice in the world, racism, sexism, religious prejudice, the list goes on. However, in these cases, United States federal law protects individuals from unfair discrimination in the workforce via laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. You may recognize this name from any time you have applied for a job, where at the end of the application businesses state that they comply with EEOC regulations and “do not discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.” These laws are extremely important to ensure that unfair discrimination is not faced, yet if you read the list of laws, you do not find anything protecting a person’s right to self expression through body modification. In a society where so many people have fought for the basic right to work and receive equal pay, why is this form of prejudice still allowed? The argument has been made that those of us that get tattoos and piercings and prefer our hair a less natural shade choose to do these things, we are not born this way. This is true, but our attraction to our own style, how we choose to present ourselves, that is something that is ingrained into us. Sure, we could try to fit in with everyone else, but we would not be true to ourselves and would be unhappy because of it. When I hear the aforementioned argument, all I hear is someone stuck in their ways defending their judgmental actions. To this argument, I propose a counterpoint: Sometimes men and women do not identify with the sex they are born to, so they express themselves as the sex they do identify as. Discrimination against these people is illegal. I rest my case.
Today’s job market is shaky enough as it is. Some businesses don’t have enough experienced and efficient employees, and too many people are having trouble finding a fulfilling job that pays the bills. Why add on to that with outdated and unfair workplace discrimination that benefits no one? Employers need to look at the qualifications of the person, not their self-expression, not what is on their skin or in their hair. Would they appreciate someone telling them that they can’t dress in a fashion that suits them if they want to be successful? Ponder this as well: How many of these people that condescend anyone unique also idolize singers, bands, actresses, and actors that have tattoos or unique hairstyles? They are no different from the rest of us, save for the fact their self-expression is not a job deterrent.
Of course there are certain places and professions where individualism is not a problem. Larger cities are usually more open minded to the change. However, the fact that there is even a shred of this prejudice left and that it is at the employer’s discretion is inexcusable. You don’t see racism, sexism, or ageism in the workplace allowed at the employer’s discretion or allowed in certain cities. It’s time that someone stands up for the “unique’s” right to work, not just in certain places, but wherever they choose and are qualified. Until then, we cannot in good faith tout that we are a nation of freedom and equality.