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Body Modification and Workplace Acceptance

It’s 2023, and more than ever before we are seeing visibly pierced and tattooed folks in all walks of life. This is a refreshing change from just a few decades ago, when piercings and tattoos were openly listed as disqualifying for employment in many places. But despite the many strides we’ve made in getting body modification to be accepted by the wider society, one issue still looms over many folks who want to get more work done- Work. Workplace acceptance is one of the largest barriers to many of my clients being able to be their authentic selves. The refrain I hear constantly is “Oh I’d love to get that done, I’ve wanted it for years. But…my job would never allow it…” Today, I want to look at workplace acceptance when it comes to piercings (and tattoos and other modifications). How far it’s come, and how we can continue to help it grow.

Through the years

In order to understand just how accepting things are now, we have to look at where we came from. Now, when many folks write about the history of tattoos and piercings, they make some broad generalizations, implying that there was some magic time period (at least in America) when body art suddenly became popular and before that, no one had any. And while there’s some truth to that in the sense of larger cultural shifts about the view on tattoos and piercings, there’s also quite a bit of exaggeration going on.

Let’s start with a 1908 study by US Army Surgeon Ammen Farenholt which noted that among recruits 23% were tattooed upon first enlistment, and be second enlistment that timber jumped to 53%. While he cautions this number probably doesn’t apply to the broader population as a whole, it still may come as a surprise to many to think that in 1908 nearly a quarter of all new military recruits were sporting tattoos. Many authors discuss time time period before the 70’s and 80’s as magically devoid of tattooing and piercing in America, and that is simply not the case!

From what we know of history tattoo trends, like many other trends, tend to be cyclical. Once you reach a point of popularity where the majority has some tattoos and piercings, the way to rebel against that is to…not have tattoos and piercings. We can look back as far as the 1680’s to see examples of folks getting heavily modified and retaining all forms of employment. Most notably the talon brothers who had facial tattoos after being adopted by native American tribes in the Mississippi region. All of whom went on to have successful jobs and lives, some employed in French colonial government positions. Nipple piercings were popular in the victorian era, and we know even courters in the higher French aristocratic societies sported them.

That being said, there have been some larger cultural shifts in the last 40 years. We’ve seen a growing interest in larger scale, more visible tattoos, with full sleeves, hands, necks, and facial tattoos becoming more wide spread than before. We also see an increase in women being heavily tattooed, something that was so uncommon as to be considered an oddity and a sideshow display years ago. We’ve also seen a huge expansion of piercings, particularly large gauge work and ear stretching, that was not as prevalent as it was before. With the invention of new piercing methods and styles like surface piercings, there is absolutely more and more unique visible modification than ever before.

While we’ve seen this shift and growth of modification (current estimates put it between 30-40% of Americans having at least one tattoo) workplace acceptance has been a hurdle for many. In the 90’s and 00’s we see job postings that specifically list no tattoos, no piercings, and no colored hair. Throughout the 2000’s and really the 2010’s however, we begin to see some of the most notable shifts in that direction. In 2014 Starbucks changed it’s policy to allow a single nose stud, and I will never forget that month because I swear my studio pierced the nostril of every barista in a 20 mile radius. We were flooded with Starbucks employees from the first day the announcement was made.

In 2019 they relaxed their requirements even further, allowing facial piercings such as septum’s. When I worked in Florida, many of my clients came in excited to tell me they landed their dream job at disney- but it meant taking out all their piercings, and covering up all their tattoos. In 2021 however, Disney began to relax requirements and allow some visible tattoos to be worn by some cast members. While piercings still aren’t permitted, it’s a step in the right direction.

Workplace Acceptance Today

In 2023 it’s inarguably better then it has been in most recent years to be visibly tattooed and pierced and looking for work. While modifications have always been popular in certain fields such as hair stylists, chefs and kitchen workers, the military, and artists, it’s not uncommon today to have a very tattooed or pierced doctor, teacher, lawyer, and even members of congress are proudly sporting tattoos and nose piercings.

However, while acceptance has grown overall, many fields and many individuals still find themselves chafing against policies that prevent them from expressing themselves. If you live in a more conservative region, chances are you will struggle more to find employment that accepts modifications in comparison to folks living elsewhere. I saw far more clients who were limited to just first and second earlobe piercings and who had to wear long sleeves to hide tattoos at work working in Tennessee then I did working in Seattle or Miami. Indeed even has a guide to getting hired with tattoos and piercings that mentions “Some owners or managers may have more conservative preferences and won't allow their employees to show tattoos in the workplace. In more relaxed company atmospheres, employers may accept tattoos at work as a sign of individuality.”

Certain lines of work may also be more limiting to having tattoos and piercings. Someone who is heavily client facing- say a relator, a nurse, or a personal assistant may struggle more to find workplaces that allow them to look how they want. In comparison to working at a warehouse, as a laboratory technician, or a construction worker.

Plan for Your Line of Work- There’s No Rush

Here’s where it’s time for me to be a bit of a boring adult, and caution folks reading who are younger or haven’t settled on a career or aren’t established in their career- be patient. While it’s more acceptable then ever to have tattoos and piercings, that doesn’t mean that having them isn’t going to impact your experiences in the workplace. This can range from simply making you have to cover up or hide your work, all the way to being denied a job for it.

For folks still in high school or in early stages of a more conservative career, stick with getting work that’s easier to hide or cover up if you need to for a job. I can’t tell you how many times I see a 16 year old ask if we’ll tattoo their hands or face-without considering how incredibly difficult they are going to make their employment goals going forward. I have clients mention that they are still going through training for work or early employment, and they often can’t have piercings. I’ll try to steer them into piercings that are easy to hide but their heart is set on something like a bridge or an industrial. They’ll be back in a few months admitting they have to remove it- even the best retainers we can figure out won’t fly for the workplace.

Start with piercings that are easy to hide- things like septum’s and tongues that are naturally hidden or nostrils and helixes that can easily wear retainers. Tattoos that can be cover under clothing or work uniforms are easier to get away with than starting with placements on your hands or neck. Consider the field you are getting into and do some research before you jump into personal modification goals. Research the requirements for your programs- will your school make you take out any piercings or cover up any tattoos? Look at employment requirements at jobs you’d like- what do they say about tattoos and piercings? And talk to people already working in the field- especially those who are modified. What was there experience like? Do they have any advice for you?

Truly, you have your whole life ahead of you to get this work done. I had the privilege of piercing a bridge for a client in Seattle who was celebrating the completion of an academic degree. In their words- “I have enough credentials and tenure now they can’t fire me- even with my colorful hair and now this piercing. This is my reward!” They knew some of the work they wanted could have hindered their career and their education- so they waited and got that work as a celebration once they had the security and authority in their field that they could have this work without flack. I was much the same- I didn’t tattoo my hand till I was 7 years into the piercing industry. I wanted to be positive I was committed to this line of work before I got something that would severely limit my ability to move on to other things.

Some Jobs Won’t allow Piercings- and That’s Ok

Depending on your eventual line of work, some career paths will never allow certain modifications. And honestly- that’s perfectly valid! I have had clients who got into the medical field and ended up in highly specialized ORs doing life saving surgery. Surgery where the risk if a piece of jewelry somehow managed to come undone or fall out was life or death. While they started their career expecting to be in a different field- this is where they ended up. And despite how secure modern body jewelry is, the risk is just too high for that one fluke accident day. So, they ended up retiring all of their piercings expect those that stayed open easily. Likewise I’ve had clients who end up doing fascinating but dangerous mining and welding work- requiring them to be crawling through tight spaces, taking gear on and off constantly. Snagging and catching there piercings in the process or potentially causing them to become hurt or injured under the worst possible circumstances. There are absolutely some jobs where it just isn’t practical or safe to have piercings and other modifications- and that is perfectly valid.

Advocating for your Modifications

If you are in the search for a new job, or at a job and hoping to discuss with your boss getting ore work done, here are some of my best tips to advocating for yourself and your modifications.

Be Respectful- The old adage “catch more flies with honey then vinegar” is a true one. When you are interacting with an employer or manager about your modifications it’s very important to be respectful. Don’t be demanding or rude about wanting to have your work, and don’t expect them to say yes. Approach these interactions with respect and politeness. By being well spoken, acknowledging their concerns about you having your modifications, and coming in prepared to gently educate about why they are safe. Some good arguments for having modifications can include promoting individuality- discuss how you feel more appreciated and more yourself when you are able to wear your tattoos and piercings with pride. You can also discuss the way it promotes workplace diversity, especially if piercings or tattoos are culturally or religiously significant to you or other employees. And see in what ways having tattoos could appeal to clientele of the business, and discuss the way it can make others find connections with staff.

Have Alternatives Ready- Obviously, the ideal situation is your employer allowing you to have all the tattoo and piercings you want. Realistically however, a compromise may need to be made. I would come prepared to suggest things like retainers, more subtle jewelry, clothing that conceals tattoos, etc. Having photograph examples to show what these methods may look like helps. This shows a willingness to make a compromise and make things work, and hopefully you can meet your boss in the middle.

Wait Till You Have Experience and Authority- For many folks, waiting in their career till they have a certain number of years of experience, a certain job title, or a certain amount of tenure is the best choice. When you are fresh in a career and don’t have much experience you have less negotiating power, and it is often harder for employees to want to make compromises about modifications they may feel concerned will negatively impact the business. But when you come from a position of experience, and bring more to the table for a job, they are often far more willing to compromise their requirements to have your skills.

Every year I see more and more industries grow more and more accepting of piercings, tattoos, and body modifications. I’m so happy to see things have been trending this way, and I hope it continues. Now more than ever there’s so much potential for modified individuals to succeed in all walks of life. Hopefully this blog can help you navigate some of the difficult interactions surrounding getting work with your modifications. And to any employees reading, this may offer you a new perspective on how much you can bring to your team if you allow your employees to express themselves.

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Often people aren't aware of the biblical law of the bondservant, in which a person's ear was pierced, or of the face the biblical character Rebekah was described as having a nose ring. People who consider themselves moral, and opposed to slavery, should have no problem with someone's authority of body modifications like piercing, especially if they are in the "Bible belt".

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