Discrimination of Self Expression: Tattoos, Piercings, and Hair Styles in the Workplace

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.

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8 thoughts on “Discrimination of Self Expression: Tattoos, Piercings, and Hair Styles in the Workplace

  1. I am 56 and can recall when only veterans had tattoos. These were usually on their upper arm. I don’t think employers cared because of the service thing.
    I don’t know what to say. I am all for free expression, but realistically I think EXCESSIVE tattoos and piercings are a negative for employment. Perhaps that will change.

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  2. My 18 year old son is currently disqualified from enlisting with the Marines because of the tattoo on his forearm. In every other way he is the ideal Marine. He is extremely fit, scored well on the ASVAB, will graduate high school this month with good grades, no trouble with the police, and has great leadership qualities. They’ve told him that if the tattoo was in an area it couldn’t be seen in the PT gear that it would be fine. He is in the process of getting a waiver for the tattoo but he’s been waiting since January. They’ve changed the policy on tattoos and it’s much more strict than in the past. We regret not researching before he got the tattoo.

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    • I am sorry to hear that. Many people I know in the military, both past and present, see the increasingly strict tattoo policies as more of a burden than anything else. It is very disheartening that in this day and age it has come to that, especially in a profession that fights for freedoms such as self expression. I wish you luck in getting that waiver.

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  3. Wow! This is very well written! First off, to Mariefriffith, I am sorry to hear that the Marine Corps. is giving your son such a hard time. This is in fact one of the areas that I have a problem with being judged. Your son, is wanting to a great service for our country. Possibly at some point put his life on the line to protect our freedoms. Something that takes a real special type of person to do something like this. And the government really cares about a tattoo? Because a tattoo matters when in a possible war, he willingly signed up to go fight and defend out country? To, me, it isn’t right. I want to personally thank you son for his willingness to to sign up for that. But i see things like that all the time. It is unfortunate. Even with law enforcement, doctors, EMT’s ect. Personally, I could care less if they have tattoos. Or what they are of. If that person is willing to put their life on the line to protect me, or rush to save me, or cure my cancer, I don’t care how they express themselves! Because again, they went through the rigorous training or schooling to become that person. And they are that person. For the people who think tattoos really affect the work place, when you are getting robbed, do you care if the cop has a tattoos? When your kid is seriously sick and needs to be treated at the ER. Are you going to say, ” I’m sorry, is there another doctor who looks more professional? I don’t trust you with your tattoos.” Or if you are in a car accident and the EMT’s show up, are you going to tell them you are going to wait fr another person to show up who is clean cut? I doubt it. Tattoos and piercing have been around for centuries, and they will continue to be around long after we are gone. They are an expression. Some tell a story. Some are pictures that we want to keep forever. I mean the list of why we have them goes on and on. Now yes, you see it all the time. Prison tattoos, gang tattoos, offensive tattoos. Those types definitely give us with tattoos a bad stereotype. But guess what, those people are probably not going after professional jobs. They are not trying to join our military to serve our country. Those people are not trying to go to med school to learn how to save lives. Tattoos and piercings have become more part of the norm in recent years. But still has a long road to travel. I hope that someday, we will have a tattooed president. Then people see, that tattoos do harbor the way you think, or your work ethic. Having them does not mean you have horrible values. It is nothing more than an extension of who you are. A piece of you. A piece of your story, that you want to tell forever. I feel like I kinda just rambled here. But i could seriously ramble forever about this. Very well written.

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    • Thank you very much for taking the time to read this and for your comment. You’re right, people aren’t going to care if the professional has tattoos if their life is in danger. And really, they should ask themselves if non-tattooed people like them are the only professionals and good people, then why do they stoop to judging people that are different? A bit hypocritical. I hope this changes soon. I am on vacation in Scotland, and here it is completely different. Individuality is embraced, even if it isn’t someone’s personal taste. It isn’t a job hindrance. Thankfully with my job choice, it won’t be as much of a problem to me when I graduate, but until then I, like many others, have to contend with outdated policies. Which does make it hard to find work when one is trying to put themselves through college to get a job that lets them express themselves. And as I have said, not everyone wants the same type of job. The policies reek of just trying to “put the ‘degenerates’ (and I say that sarcastically) where they won’t have to be seen.” Sadly until we are protected under EEOC, it will be hard to change. I will say that I cannot wait to open my own salon. While it won’t be exclusive to just people like me, I do want the environment to promote self expression, not just in my work but through my employees. I want it to be a safe haven so people won’t have to worry about choosing between a career and who they are.
      As for a tattooed president… Fun fact, Theodore Roosevelt had his family crest on his chest.

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