Body mods and employment: Has the stigma changed?

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         I grew up in a world in which tattoos, multiple piercings, and “unusual” haircuts and colors were for bikers, delinquents, “those kind of girls” (and I remember wondering what those kinds of girls were), or kids just trying to thumb their nose at adults and the rest of the world. Kids, or rather teenagers, have been trying to express their individuality for decades and each generation finds a new form of expression. The eighties saw body modifications such as hairstyles, color, and piercings as the more common forms of expression. While those forms are still popular, we have now added tattoos and fashion choices to the list.

         It is important to realize that body modifications, especially tattoos and body piercings, have been around for centuries. In some cultures, tattoos and piercings are part of the culture, a rite of passage. The United States has followed the mainstream Christian’s viewpoint that tattoos are considered to be part of a criminal image or even paganism. Therefore, each generation has reduced the opinion of tattoos and body piercings to a stigma. If you talked to my grandmother, only sailors or bikers had tattoos and they were generally people you wanted to avoid. I must admit that even as a child I wondered why I would want to avoid someone just because they had a tattoo. I had two uncles in the Navy which made them sailors so I didn’t understand the correlation. My brother is a biker and while he has a lot of tattoos, he is the sweetest individual you could ever meet. In fact, his friends, who are also bikers, are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Accepting and gracious, every one of them.

         I think it partially belongs to, but is not limited to, the generation someone comes from when it comes to body modifications. This is something that Caleb Lamont, a Communications Studies professor here at Eastern Oregon University, mentioned in an interview with The Voice. It cannot and should not be a “blanket statement” toward all from a certain age group, but the stigma toward body modifications, speaking from a research perspective, is more prevalent in the older generations. As the younger generations begin entering the workforce, it is dependent upon the field in which they choose to work as to what, if any, stigma they will face when seeking a job. In the interview with Lamont, I discovered that not only does he work with college students, he also works with “high school students, adult learners, and everyone in between”. He specializes in education, so he works with his students regarding interview strategies. He likes to give these students all the research-based information they will need to make an informed decision about their possible career choice. Within this information is the stigma surrounding body modifications and in which fields or company types this stigma is still a part of their dress code. For it is within this dress code that many young people have experienced this stigma.

Right-Ashli, Left- Sammi, Photo credit to Ida Ghramm

         I also interviewed my own daughters to find out what kind, if any, of stigma they have experienced. Ashli, who is 31, works in the veterinary medical field and the dress code for her company has less of a stigma attached to it. Body modifications, such as tattoos and piercings, are fine as long as they are not offensive. This works well for Ashli, as she has a tattoo and plans on getting more in the future. Sammi, 26, who is working on her first sleeve which is not easily hidden, works in the service industry in a family-owned business and they are lax with their dress code. They hire a lot of the younger generation and that might be why their dress code is more lenient – a recognition of how body modifications are becoming more prevalent, and they accept that it is a form of expression. Dennise, an EOU student, told me she has a job in which body modifications are not allowed per the dress code but her supervisor is understanding of modern trends and did not have a problem with her piercings or tattoos as long as they could be covered up when corporate bosses were onsite.

         This does bring me to the most important idea that came from the interview I held with my daughters. Sammi mentioned that when she worked as a teller at a bank their dress code was strict and another teller with multiple tattoos had to wear clothing that would cover them completely. She also mentioned that she ran into something unexpected while she worked there. She has naturally curly, very long and thick hair which for years she straightened because the excessive curliness she felt was too “big”. One day her hair was looking the best it ever had so she chose not to straighten it and went to work with it down. At work she was told she had to put her hair up, she did not look professional enough. When I heard that, it was almost a physical blow that made me realize that it was a form of racism, that someone’s natural hair was inappropriate and must be altered to fit the look that society deems acceptable. While not a body modification, this is part of the stigma that can be found in companies with a formal, structured way they expect associates to look. Lamont says that these types of companies are generally catering to a specific clientele so there are expectations of how they want their employees to present themselves. That one experience led to the opinion my daughter has now about work in general. She will not work for someone who will not accept her for all that she is, whether it’s the hair she was born with or the tattoos she has chosen as art forms to express her love for others and her personality.

         This is something we are going to see in this generation that may soon change the stigma surrounding body modifications in the working world, whether banking or corporate. As Lamont stated when asked if he has seen a change in the stereotype or stigma surrounding body modifications, “different generational cohorts [can] play a role”. When members of the younger generation move into high-level positions, Lamont believes “they can have a critical role in being more open … and helping to eliminate this stigma.” While we cannot say that the stigma has changed completely, it can be assumed that our society is becoming more accepting of body modifications in the workforce. 

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