03/25/2014 05:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Professional Prejudice Against Tattoos

Imagine: A woman walks into a corporate job interview and her arms are covered in tattoos. Now, imagine another woman with no tattoos, but rather, apparent breast implants walking into the same interview. They are equally qualified for the position -- who is more likely to get the job?

I've asked multiple people this question, and most seem to lean towards the woman with breast implants. This bothers me, not because I have a tattoo sleeve or breast implants, but rather because of the stereotypes associated with different forms of self-modification.

People dye their hair because they want a different look. Some get fluids injected by needles into their foreheads to rid their skin of wrinkles. Others have their lips, noses and entire faces reconstructed. So, why is it that other forms of self-alteration are accepted -- and maybe even encouraged -- while tattoos are still widely viewed as trashy or gang-related?

Perhaps the stereotype stemmed from World War II veterans' ink; their tattoos represented their ranks. It could be because there are a higher percentage of tattoos among inmates (about 66 percent of inmates have tattoos). Or maybe it percolated from the mere idea that only a crazy person would willingly fuse permanent ink into their aging skin.

But -- if you think about it -- the people who are giving and receiving tattoos generally believe the design is a form of art. Thus, if their job performance is the same, why does corporate America continue to stifle this form of self-expression?

Don't get me wrong; it's understandable if an employer is biased when hiring someone with an offensive and visible tattoo, because one wouldn't wear insulting clothing to work. But research from a Pew Research poll in 2010 suggests that 23 percent of Americans have a tattoo, and I have to assume that the majority of the designs aren't offensive. So, what is it about our society that correlates tattoos with unprofessionalism?


Photo courtesy of Hannah Denitz

Hannah Denitz was 19 when she applied for a promotion from Junior Lifeguard to Head Coordinator at Carpinteria Beach in California. At the time, Denitz had a few animal tattoos on her left arm, a Walt Whitman quote on her chest and a portrait of the Little Prince (a French children's novella) on her ribs. Although she ended up getting the job, they wouldn't allow her to talk with parents without being fully covered. "Basically if I wanted the job, which is on the beach all day everyday, I had to wear full clothing," Denitz says.

This is the common theme: You can have the job, as long as you cover your art.

Art. That's what it is, right?

Be that as it may, I'm not writing this to encourage you to get a tattoo, nor do I care if you like tattoos. I just hope that one day I have the opportunity to interview someone who doesn't feel pressured to cover a personal choice.

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