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Letter to the editor: Workplace rules against body modifications are a violation of employees’ autonomy


Body modifications, such as unnaturally-colored hair, tattoos and piercings, are banned by many employers. — photo by automnenoble bogomolov on pexels

By Rachel VanDorpe of North Liberty

Phone rings
“Floral Shop, how may I help you?”
“Yes, I’d like a dozen roses delivered to my partner please!”
“Sure, we’d love to send your partner flowers, but just so you know, I have purple hair.”

Sounds a little silly right? Unfortunately, every day those working in an environment with a strict dress code face this sort of scrutiny. Their professionalism, work ethic and employability are questioned because of dyed hair, visible tattoos and piercings, and the clothing and accessories they choose to wear.

I am one of these employees.

I love my job. I get to be creative by designing beautiful floral arrangements that comfort people in times of tragedy and aid the celebration of life’s most joyous occasions. Unfortunately, my creativity is limited by corporate dress code policy against unnaturally colored hair. It also expressly forbids facial piercings, visible tattoos and head coverings that are not worn for religious reasons. This has always been difficult to swallow. I see my purple (or blue or rainbow) colored hair as an extension of myself.

According to a Pew Research Center’s 2010 survey of 18-29-year-olds, “Nearly four-in-ten have a tattoo (… about half of those with tattoos have two to five and 18% have six or more). Nearly one-in-four have a piercing in some place other than an earlobe — about six times the share of older adults who’ve done this.” Because employers are not comfortable with people who “look different,” they are missing out on a huge potential workforce that would bring tremendous positive change and growth to their companies.

Where they see someone whose face resembles a tackle-box accident, I see someone who has designed and seen to every detail of their appearance. For those who might be missing body modification experience, it takes a great deal of care and work to healthily maintain piercings and tattoos. This includes personal hygiene, knowledge of sanitation and incredible attention to detail. Someone with a tackle-box face will know how to wash their hands, how important it is to keep work areas clean and would cause me no worry while preparing food or defending me in court.

So, my question is where does “self” end and job begin? Should employers have the right to tell their workers what they can and can’t do to modify their body? My answer is a resounding no. I see it as a violation of body autonomy.

Bodily autonomy means having control over who or what uses your body, for what and for how long. Telling an employee that they aren’t allowed visible body modification is telling them how they can and can’t use their body. Requiring employees to conform to an outdated dress code that enforces the social norm of the clean-cut, unmodified, “upstanding citizen” not only unnecessarily limits individuality in the workplace, but also affects what workers can do outside of work. One can’t simply change their hair color before work and then back again after or take off tattoos and put them back on. Put on a wig, you say? Those are forbidden by dress codes as well.

This creates a totally new issue. I recently heard an anecdote from a friend who works in the Corridor. One evening a trans coworker was ordered to remove her wig at work because the dress code prohibits it. She did, but I can only imagine the amount of pain and possible dysphoria this may have caused her. It certainly doesn’t make for a friendly work environment and outright defies body autonomy.

I recently went to work with dark purple hair. I intended to challenge our dress code by showing my boss first hand how my job performance is unaffected by the color of my hair. It even sounds silly to type. This should be a common-sense statement, but for many people it is a hard concept to grasp. Someone’s outward appearance does not predict if they will be good at their job. End of story. To see this, companies with archaic dress codes will need to make crucial updates to their policies. Corporations need to move past physical appearance.

When they see my hair and tattoos do they see a deviant, a criminal, someone untrustworthy? I hope not. I still have a bright smile and an unwavering commitment to our customers’ satisfaction. Hopefully through civil dialogue progress will be made. I encourage others working under outdated dress codes to open lines of communication with their employers, not only about why these rules are in place and how to work towards positive change, but also towards an understanding of what bodily autonomy is and why it is important.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.

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