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.