Evaluate My Work, Not My Body Art

When I was an undergrad, one of my reasons for wanting to continue in academia was my aversion to Western formal clothing. If I became a Ph.D. student and then a professor, I thought, I would hardly ever need to wear suits or dress shirts, and such a life appealed to me. I had seen academics of all stripes dress in all sorts of ways, and I naively believed that this signalled something very progressive about academia’s stance towards appearance: wear what you want, because you’ll be evaluated based upon your ideas and work, not how you choose to present yourself.

But a recent article in a column called Ask Alice (published on the website of Science, one of the most high profile scientific journals out there) confirms my naivete. In this piece, an anonymous academic who finds themselves in a “conservative place” for their postdoc, asks Dr. Alice Huang, “Am I crazy to think that no one here can see beyond my [tattoos and piercings]?” In her response, Dr. Huang suggests that this postdoc should not “jeopardize your career at this early stage with gratuitous self-expression.” Instead, “remove the nose ring and hide your other decorations under a long-sleeved black turtleneck and jeans” while at the workplace, because “body decorations and piercings become a distraction and may indicate, to some, immaturity or vanity.” Wow.

Don’t you think, Dr. Huang, you’d be able to assess whether I’m immature or vain by actually talking to me? Do you think the few hours I’ve spent over the last fifteen years getting my tattoos or piercings is time I should have spent furthering my career? And do you honestly think I need to dress like Steve Jobs before anyone takes me seriously?

What this piece suggests to me and other young academics is that we can dress how we want, as long as we stay carefully within the lines of what is permissible according to the academic establishment. But consider that the academic establishment has, for the longest time, been overwhelmingly male, white, straight, and upper class. What this establishment considers acceptable is heavily coloured by its history of exclusivity. If you’re at all invested in making academia more welcoming of diversity, then you have to recognize that diversity in class or gender or race or sexual orientation comes hand in hand with diversity of self-expression. This means that instead of telling young academics to censor themselves until they’ve received tenure, we should be asking academics within the establishment to not judge their colleagues based on their body art, or clothing, or hair style, or any other part of their appearance. Is that such an outrageous thought?

I’m always amused when people suggest that tattoos or piercings are a sign of impulsive rebelliousness—I spent more time deciding whether or not to get my first tattoo than I spent deciding where to go to grad school (rest assured, Dr. Huang, I didn’t ponder the tattoo question during work hours). Personally, my tattoos represent feelings and ideas that are important to me, and reflect times of my life that I want to remember. My mother designed one of my tattoos for me. In one of the seven piercings on my ears, I wear a earring that my grandmother had made for me from the diamonds she wore for most of her adult life and that she gave to me before she died. You can see this body art, and decide that my self expression is gratuitous, or you can accept that different people share their identities with the world in different ways, and welcome this diversity of thought into the scientific establishment. Academia is already home to plenty of pierced and tattooed scientists—you might as well get used to us.

My first tattoo: an antlion larvae, my first study organism.
My first tattoo: an antlion larvae, my first study organism.

25 thoughts on “Evaluate My Work, Not My Body Art

  1. Very true, that’s a pretty outdated system to judge by nowadays. Some people like to decorate themselves, world. Get used to it.

  2. Absolutely agree. One of the main criticisms I’ve heard of tattoos is that the person must not have thought about how it will look later in life and what other people will think, with the implication being that if they had they wouldn’t have got the tattoo. The permanency seems to scare a lot of people, as well as the narrow-minded perceptions of others!

  3. I am with you. I too want to pursue similar career and in no way I am gonna sacrifice my happiness and my desires. My capabilities are different from my dressing interests.
    Good one. 🙂

  4. Well said! A persons way of expressing themselves should be respected by others and shouldn’t result in judgement. I plan on being a high school teacher and eventually a college professor and I plan on continuing to get tattoos.

  5. I must admit, as a young African, tattoos and piercings are usually taken as a sign of rebellion and are frowned upon. This has helped broaden my understanding tho. Hopefully, I don’t stereotype the next person I see with a piercing or tattoo

  6. I applaud people who express their uniqueness. It’s a funny thing that although no two people are exactly alike, the majority of humanity strives to look like everyone else. How sad, boring, and ungrateful. Understandably it can be scary to stand out but I believe when we express ourselves and share our uniqueness we save the world bit by bit. So kudos to you!!

  7. Don’t worry – when your generation takes over at the helm, tattoos and piercings will be the norm since everyone (including my kid) has them, and no one will notice. Have patience with us old farts.

  8. My tattoos are a history of love and rage and motherhood and grief written on my body. I could no more regret them than I could the emotions and events which led me to want to remember them. But take heart. You can see how much has changed and how quickly. The old ideals will fade too, and be replaced by new, which in turn will face scrutiny down the road.

  9. People who judge have no idea how meaningful a persons tattoo can be to them and the thought process and/or meaning that goes into each design. Well said!

  10. I agree about the not impulsiveness part of it. It’s funny that I ran across this because I have for many years been trying to get a tattoo and for one reason or another I still haven’t to this day. I have finally brought up the idea again, and yet I can’t just go to anybody to get it, and need to figure out a sketch that incorporates everything my mind is imagining. It’s such a hard decision!

  11. Agreed with everything you said! Unfortunately the stereotyping happens in most fields not just academia. I do hope that changes someday.

  12. I’m going to reblog this. You’ve very eloquently put what I have been struggling to make into words for some time.

    I went to work in the voluntary sector thinking it would be much more open minded. It was, if anything, even more closed minded than the corporate sector – at least in medical research charities anyway.

    My mother’s very narrow minded approach to tattoos is that sailors and other down and outs get them. Her words not mine! (Also how sailors qualify as part of this so called down and out classification I don’t know.) I didn’t get my first tattoos till I was 31 and my husband and I plan on having many more. I’m also pondering moving into academia. My experience has been that it needs young academics, women and people of all different races and religions in particular, to shake things up.

    Body art is here to stay. Just because it isn’t someone else’s cup of tea doesn’t mean that it isn’t OK. There’s no space in society for such sweeping judgements.

  13. Agree! As much as we hate to admit it, we can’t refrain ourselves from judging other people based on how they present theirselves. Let’s be real, we all do that sometimes. But then again, we need to give everyone the benifit of the doubt despite all the tattoos and piercing. It takes only a second to judge someone but it takes half a life time to really get to know someone.

    1. Absolutely. We all have unconscious biases based on how we’ve been socialized. But by being aware of them and interrogating our gut reactions, we can try to overcome them.

  14. Reblogged this on Progressive Rubber Boots and commented:
    I am torn. I used to believe in self-expression, but thought it best covered when in “certain” circumstances. Now not so much. My opinion changed a while back when the good Chritstian ladies at my former workplace criticised the “people of Wales Mart”. Five minutes in the Darian region of Panama and a number of tribal areas in Africa would change their opinions on dress acceptance.

    I would someday like to get a tattoo, but I won’t out of fear of not liking it in a few years, not due to opinions of others. Some businesses do not like tattoo expressions, long, glittery nails, piercings, oh, and so much more. My tattoos or earrings would in no way take away my professionalism and compassion.

    Express yourself, please!

  15. Of course, body art is valid and needs to be respected. And it doesn’t need to be explained to the narrow-minded. What if a tattoo does not have any particularly deep meaning but is just enjoyed? People who wish to judge will never get it.

  16. Sorry to voice an unpopular opinion, but people everywhere will always judge you on your appearance. I’m a woman. Trust me, I have thought about how unfair it is to be judged on clothing, makeup, hair–yes, tattoos and piercings, too. But first of all, culture doesn’t change in a day, and even if it did, I’m sorry, but there are more important things that need to change. Secondly, what’s more important: your self-expression while at work, or your work? Work places have dress codes, written and unwritten. This is true everywhere. I really don’t buy this as growing out of academic elitism or having at all to do with race, sexual orientation, etc. either. Freedom of expression is about being able to be mad at the government without being thrown into jail or something, not about being able to wear or display whatever you want at work. My last thought on this is that tattoos, cleavage, even bad hair dye jobs, whatever, are distracting. They just are, and it can’t be helped. People might even be thinking how much they LOVE your style, but wouldn’t you rather they were thinking how interesting your work was or something like that?

  17. Just to clarify, are people actually judging your work based on your body art or do you mean they are judging you as a person whilst at work because of your body art?

  18. As a university student with tattoos (not that many but the plan is many more) I do get asked by people what I will plan to do in the future almost as if they think I will never get a job because of my piercings and tattoos. I can see why there is still an issue as while academia is opening up to more younger and open minded Doctors and Professors, a majority of them, especially in the Uk (I don’t know if its the same anywhere else) are of the era of the turtle neck and waist coats. This I feel could be leading towards the still present stigma in academic work towards people with piercings and tattoos. I feel if one is a gifted and intelligent individual who is passionate about their work, why shouldn’t they have tattoos and piercings. Obviously when I (hopefully) get the job I wish to get I will dress nicely and present myself well, however I’ll be doing this with two full sleeves and stretched ears 😀

  19. It’s interesting subject because not that long ago punks WANTED to be judged by their tattoos and piercings and they wanted people to judge them as rebellious, impulsive, anti establishment and anti intellectual. Or at least that was the message promoted in the media (punk was kind of contrived and commercialised like all youth culture is).

    So you must surely understand why some people find it odd that you have tattoos and yet want to be part of academia. It might be annoying, but it is not incomprehensible.

    The swastika is, I believe, a peace sign in India, and it is basically a representation of the sun, or even the galactic centre. So theoretically you could tattoo a swastika on your arm with those meanings in mind, and then get annoyed whenever people judge you incorrectly as a Nazi. And people who have nothing but concern for you might advise you to cover up your swastika tattoo for important job interviews.

    The point is fashion and art exists within a cultural context. That context might be annoying and it is always outdated because the culture of today is always a legacy of the actions and the values of people in the past.

    Most people dress and present themselves a certain way to be judged a certain way, and the more people stray from the norm the more it is likely that they want to be judged for how they look. Tattoos are becoming very mainstream now, but they are still a novelty to some degree, and a lot of people are still making the same associations they did in the 70’s and 80’s. And academia is notoriously full of people with incredibly rigid, fixed, narrow minds. It’s just how the western education system is designed, being as it is, based on the Prussian Schule system ….. which brings us full circle I guess.

    And remember….. young people today who desperately want to promote the image of being rebellious, impulsive and anti establishment can’t really do it with tattoos and piercings anymore, because of people like you changing the cultural context of tattoos. Have you ever looked at it that way before? 😉

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