Body Talk: Why are body modifications unprofessional?

Take a look around most college campuses and you will notice the striking diversity in the ways students present themselves. Some are sporting tattoos, piercings or colored hair, and there is an infinite assortment of clothing styles. Yet when it comes time to interview for jobs, internships or grad school, we possess a collective understanding that some parts of us must be hidden or changed in order to conform to the rules of professionalism.

Your initial reaction to this might be to say, “Of course you can’t have pink hair at a job! These rules exist for a reason.” But do they? What, intrinsically, makes body modifications (mods) unsuitable for a professional environment? Perhaps it is explained by the associations people make between body mods and undesirable character traits like degeneracy and delinquency.

Employers assume that their clientele will be put off by seeing employees with more than one hole in their ear, foregoing a potential money-making interaction. While I understand that, under capitalism, the needs and sensibilities of the person with the money matter more than the employees, a person’s bodily presentation does not directly reflect the quality of work they are capable of doing.

Our concept of “professional attire” is based on socioeconomic class. Nicer clothes cost more money; the wealthier you appear, the more trustworthy you seem to potential customers or clients. While employers may have some reasonable presentation-related stipulations, such as good personal hygiene, barring certain people from working at your establishment based on your opinion of their appearance reinforces class boundaries and can be used as a basis for unlawful discrimination. It can also be downright impossible to conform if a person’s tattoos and piercings are not easily covered or removed.

Body modifications are most traditionally associated with motorcycle gangs and sailors, where they may have signaled in-group affinity and a rebellious break from the accepted cultural norms. The enduring association with bloodborne pathogens certainly does not help their case, even though most tattoo and piercing parlors adhere to stringent health code standards. Today, many people choose to get body modifications to express their creativity. Consequently, the practice has become more socially acceptable. The old assumptions about body mods are slowly being exchanged for new, more positive associations as the younger generation embraces their individuality in an objectively innocuous way—“It’s just an earring, Susan, not a bear trap.”

Some companies are even beginning to embrace the diversity in appearance of their employees. When I worked at Mayo Clinic Hospital last summer, we were allowed to have visible, non-offensive tattoos and several approved piercings. That such an old (read: stuffy and conservative) institution allows some body modifications speaks volumes about how the times are…a-changin’. I, for one, am hopeful that other companies will follow suit; my traditional-style tattoo of my cat deserves to see the light of day.