Personal Reflection

Body Modifications in Higher Education – My Experience

That right there, that’s me. With the short hair, the brightly colored tattoos and the two nose piercings. My nose piercings are always in. My tattoos only hidden during the colder months when the temperatures are too frigid for short sleeves. This is how I present myself every day, including when I’m at work, and here’s my experience being a higher education professional with body modifications.

I got my first tattoo, a small heart on my wrist, right before I started grad school. I had always wanted a tattoo and admired tattooed women. The old adage about tattoos is true in that, once you get started, they become very addicting. It wasn’t too long before I got my second one and almost four years later, I’ve got a good portion of my left arm covered. The nose piercings came soon after I cut my hair, in the same year I got my first tattoo. To say that my parents were not happy with me is an understatement. Aside from the fact that they hate tattoos, their biggest fear was my employability. The degree, in their opinion, wouldn’t matter much once employers saw the ink beneath my skin. I may get a job but I’d likely be passed over for promotions in favor of virgin-skinned colleagues. I could throw statistics about how the number of tattooed individuals is on the rise and how they are becoming more and more acceptable all day but, even though I believed in my own arguments, their worries started to worry me too.

By my second year of grad school, and into my second year of my graduate assistantship in the Dean’s office, I had gotten a bigger heart on my forearm. And since it was summer, it was rather difficult to hide. I did my grad program (and my undergrad for that matter) at a pretty waspy school. Now that I had two tattoos, I was considered “alternative”. I remember all too well having to meet with another professional on campus, a middle-aged white gentleman in slacks and an Andy Bernard- style sweater (even though it was over 90 degrees outside), and he did a very obvious double-take of my arm. I felt defensive. Most of all because he made no effort to hide it and I could see a flicker of disapproval on his face, even if only for a second.

By the time I graduated with my master’s degree, I had added two more – the word “warrior” in script and a nerd tattoo (Deathly Hallows symbol – it’s a Harry Potter thing for all you muggles) on the same arm as the bigger heart. All three were easy to cover with long sleeves and I got my first job post-graduation with no problem. This time, I was at a much more diverse institution in the city (where I am still currently). Still, I did not see any of my colleagues with tattoos or piercings. Unfortunately for me, though, my office was fairly warm. Too warm. Long sleeves were out of the question. So, I abandoned my cardigan while in my office and donned it whenever I left it. During my first week, I ran into my supervisor sans cardigan. She didn’t say anything and didn’t seem to notice the tattoos on my arm. Before she could say anything though, I hastily said, “I usually keep them covered!”. I tried to get ahead of any criticism, or worse, reprimand. To my surprise, she waved her hand at my silliness and said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Why? Don’t cover them! No one cares here”. To say I was relieved is an understatement. I felt free to be who I wanted to be. And with that freedom came my next four tattoos, this time bigger and more colorful. My septum piercing was done somewhere in the midst of them.

Now, almost two years later, I am steadily working on a full sleeve on my left arm. My nose piercing comes out only on rare occasions. Unfortunately, to say that I feel completely, 100% accepted would be a lie. There are definitely moments when I feel judged. I distinctly remember my team and I meeting with some fellow colleagues across campus and my supervisor telling me that, though it was up to me, I may want to remove my septum and wear my cardigan beforehand. And so I did. It frustrated me but my boss was right. They would not have respected me as a professional had I presented with the full force of my body modifications. That is a risk I run all the time. I could just not care but, given that I do want to move up on the career ladder, I do have to care sometimes. I wish that I could say that I am purely judged on the quality of my work but I know better. My appearance is judged right along with it. And I already know, for any future job interviews, my tattoos will be covered and my piercings removed. Sometimes, though, it all works in my favor.

Students love my tattoos! At least I haven’t heard otherwise. Once, during a poster presentation my students were doing for my class, we got completely sidetracked exchanging tattoo stories since a lot of my students also have them. I get compliments from strangers all the time as well, which is always a nice ego boost. Most importantly though, I freakin’ love my tattoos. I love how they look and how they look on me. All the judgement in the world could not make me love them any less. If only they were cheaper…

Overall, I have not had many negative experiences as a result of my body modifications (furiously knocks on wood). At least not any that would make me irreversibly self-conscious. While most people’s first glances, upon first meeting, fall squarely onto my tattoos, they have not prohibited me from making meaningful, professional connections nor from having the good quality of my work recognized. I will admit, a lot of this has to do with the culture of my workplace. That reality is a constant irritating voice in the back of my head. It is a potential limitation I have put upon myself but, at this moment, I would not take back any of it.

What are your thoughts on body modifications in the workplace? Do you have any? How do they affect you? Share your story in the comments.

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