Humans have been modifying their bodies with tattoos and piercings for thousands of years. Yet in the workplace, visible tattoos and piercings have historically been considered taboo. Is that still true today?
The answer varies by company and by industry; however, the movement toward more inclusive workplaces has normalized body art in many cases. Because corporate culture is now built around its employees, more and more companies are placing emphasis on individuality and innovation, and women are seeing that shift. Today, according to InHerSight data, only 14 percent of women with tattoos say they've been discriminated against because they have tattoos, and only 20 percent say they'd be nervous to tell a potential employer they have them. A whopping 75 percent of women, with tattoos and without, say it's a-okay to have tattoos in the workplace.
Clearly, creative expression isn’t as edgy as it used to be, at least according to women employees. Yet the history of body art in the workplace tells us otherwise, and we know anecdotally that women experience awkwardness during interviews and in the office when they have tattoos or piercings. Let’s look at how our attitude toward body art has evolved over time, and how it specifically affects women’s career prospects.
History behind tattoos and piercings
The first evidence of tattoos and piercings we have is from Ötzi the Iceman, whose body was found 5,300 years after he died. Ötzi’s body was found by two hikers in 1991 in the Alps between Austria and Italy, and his body was decorated with 61 tattoos and pierced ears. AKA, piercings and tattoos are by no means a modern development.
During the 20th century, tattoos had negative connotations, often being associated with sailors, criminals, and circus performers. But since the 1970s, there’s been an enormous boom in tattoo art, and public opinion has generally shifted from associating tattoos with rebelliousness to a form of self-expression. During the 2000s, tattoos became an integral part of pop culture, with celebrities showing off new ink and several television series delving into the process with shows like Inked and Miami Ink.
Today, more than 25 percent of the U.S. population has at least one tattoo.
Tattoos and women
Margot Mifflin’s 1997 book, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, examines the cultural history of tattoos and women. Mifflin explains that for women, the surge of tattoo popularity has coincided with the feminist movement—along with feminist victories in the 1880s, 1920s, and 1970s came a surge in tattoo art. She writes that tattoos are an important aspect of female bodily reclamation. In times where others often try to gain control over women’s bodies, tattoos can be a form of empowerment and defiance after controversies like abortion rights or traumatic experiences like surviving breast cancer or abuse.
What’s sad (but not shocking) is that women still deal with a double standard when it comes to tattoos. One study showed that women with tattoos are perceived as less intelligent, less honest, and less motivated. Whereas a visible tattoo on a man might show rebellion (which is often associated with an assertive and desired leadership style in the workplace) a visible tattoo on a woman might be viewed as untasteful or “unladylike.” Insert eye-roll. If you’re part of a company that allows visible tattoos on men but not on women, that constitutes grounds for workplace discrimination.
How are tattoos viewed in the workplace today?
In recent decades, fostering an inclusive workplace has become imperative to company success. In many career fields, you can find several employees in executive positions with tattoos—especially in more arts-forward fields. Tattoos and piercings are definitely more common in the workplace than they were 50 years ago, but there’s still some stigma attached—a 2014 poll revealed that 77 percent of employers would or might be less likely to hire employees if they had tattoos.
The acceptance or disapproval of your tattoos and piercings still largely depends on your career field and position. Generally, visible tattoos of discriminatory or explicit nature regarding race, religion, or sexual content or face and neck tattoos are not acceptable in the workplace and may disqualify you in an interview. Founder and CEO Marc Cenedella of career website Ladders says, "face tattoos are almost always a non-starter outside of hourly work." For professional environments, face tattoos are shocking, but are becoming more common in artistic fields like music because of their shock value. If you hold a client-facing position, your employer will most likely be a little more apprehensive and uncomfortable with you having dozens of highly visible piercings and tattoos.
Say you’re a defense attorney. If your goal is to defend someone in court, you probably don’t want to have tons of visible skull and crossbones tattoos. A small heart tattoo on your ankle might be more forgiving, but it all depends on your employer. The success of a company can usually always be attributed to employees’ skills, work ethic, and expertise—not their appearance—and hopefully we’ll continue to move forward valuing experience over appearance.
Can my company enforce a dress code?
Yes, your company can implement a certain dress code outlining what is and isn’t acceptable at work, and that sometimes might include tattoos and piercings. Dress code policies vary depending on your industry and position—the policy on tattoos and piercings for a bank executive and a graphic designer will probably be very different (think public-facing corporate atmosphere vs. artsy environment where self-expression is encouraged). But, acceptable work attire is constantly changing (cough cough, wearing ripped jeans to the office).
If you’re worried about the acceptance of your bodily modifications, ask about your company—current or prospective—dress code up front.
Can an employer ask about my tattoos in an interview?
First, you always want to do your due diligence and research the company’s culture before an interview. Try to get a feel from their website, LinkedIn, social channels, and if you know someone personally at the company, ask if tattoos and piercings are acceptable.
There are no explicit protections for people who are asked about their tattoos, and a good interviewer will likely present the dress code up front if it's a requirement for the job, and you'll have an opportunity then to say whether you do or don't have tattoos. If your interviewer asks about tattoos during your interview, don’t be deceptive. You should be honest and let them know if you have any controversial visible tattoos. If you have non-visible or small tattoos in conspicuous places, just let them know you don’t have any visible tattoos or you’d prefer not to answer.
What do I say if the hiring manager asks me about the meaning of my tattoos?
If they ask, ooh, what does that symbol represent? it's most likely just a conversation topic to break the ice and they’re genuinely interested. But the question can be perceived as inappropriate, and if you don't want to discuss the meaning because it’s super personal or because...well, body talk is just weird, you can kindly deflect the question with an answer like, It’s actually super personal, but I can tell you about [xyz story that actually relates to the position you’re applying to].
What can I do if I need to conceal piercings or tattoos?
There are ways you can make your piercings less visible to console your boss. Piercing retainers can help you conceal your piercings at work—the small bars are usually transparent and hold the place of regular metal piercings. For tattoos, simply cover them with additional clothing or a wrap if necessary.