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Tattoos in the Office: Debating Outdated Standards of Professionalism

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at George Mason University chapter.

Two days before my twentieth birthday, in an act somewhere between a final attempt at teenage rebellion and a marker of my next level of adulthood, I bought myself a birthday gift: my first tattoo. I walked out of my local tattoo shop (all-women owned, I’m proud to say) with a branch of blackberries inked across my left rib cage. 

The next tattoo, a year later, was smaller – a tiny Saturn, surrounded by stars, on my ankle to match my two best friends. Those first two tattoos were different, but one thing remained similar; I made absolute sure before getting them that they would be completely covered in any professional settings. 

I grew up with the understanding that tattoos were acceptable and fun, with two caveats: first, they had to have some “deeper meaning,” and second, that they had to be easily hidden or else I would never be able to find a job. 

Those two rules, benign as they may seem, may be representative of a more sinister mindset surrounding bodily autonomy that plagues modern professionalism.

Tattoos have a long, diverse history, dating as far back as 2000 BC. Throughout history they’ve stood as markers of wealth, status, and culture. In many other ways, however, they also serve as a means for people – women in particular –  to claim bodily autonomy and take control of their own self-image. 

In an article by TIME magazine, a curator by the name of Cristian Petru Panaite is quoted as saying, “Tattoos were an early way that women took control of their bodies.”

While makeup, hairstyles and clothing all can be used for self-expression, many of those are tied to gendered connotations. I gave up wearing makeup years ago because I realized that the line between wearing makeup as self-expression and wearing makeup because that’s the way women are expected to look is a precarious one. Especially as a queer woman, it’s important to me that I find ways to express myself physically without relying on things that would label me as traditionally feminine; to express myself on my own terms.

I don’t need every tattoo to be deeply significant when the act of getting a tattoo is, in itself, a representation of my own freedom and self-expression.

The second thought, about the potential struggle to get a job with visible tattoos, is a related issue. Modern standards of professionalism (though many suggest that those standards are shifting) heavily dictate the appearance of “ideal” corporate employees. The concept that tattoos are unprofessional relies on the assumption that the appearance of employees impacts their performance. 

In a 2014 Huffpost article about being a genderqueer individual in the worklace, Jacob Tobla writes, “As a concept, professionalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, imperialist and so much more — and yet people act like professionalism is non-political.”

When your ability to be hired, and then your subsequent communication and interaction with your employer and coworkers can be impacted by their perception of you – knowing that communication is ruled by unspoken markers of race, class, gender, and sexuality – the workplace becomes political in ways that systematically exclude the less privileged. The entire concept of aesthetic workplace professionalism is outdated and needs to be re-examined, and tattoos are merely a symptom of that.

As for me, I’m finally starting to break that taboo for myself. In one week, I’ll be getting my third tattoo – placed proudly on my arm so I can show it off whenever and however I want.

Maggie Roth

George Mason University '22

Maggie Roth is a senior at George Mason from Cape May, New Jersey. She is studying Communication with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Social Justice. In addition to working with Her Campus, Maggie is the Culture Editor for Mason’s student newspaper, the Fourth Estate. Alongside a passion for writing and social justice, she loves baking and experimenting with different forms of crafting!
George Mason Contributor (GMU)

George Mason University '50

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