Body Modification and the Workplace
By Erinn Streckfuss, EDN
As she slowly removes various components of surgical steel body jewelry from her face, 27-year-old Nadine Surja lets out a deep sigh. Surja is originally from Romania but has lived in Eugene for five years now. She proudly veils her body with various forms of body modification including tattoos, piercings, branding, and even scarification.
With certain extreme modifications (including double stretched nostrils at an eight gauge and a facial tattoo), it is very difficult for Surja to find work in the United States. Originally an art student, Surja had to start school over again. But in order to make her way through school, she must work. Surja says,
“I’ve had several different jobs while I’ve been here. And I have had most of my body mods since before I moved to the states.”
In Romania, Surja was often stared at for her appearance. But in Eugene she is treated better:
“The people here are more accepting of it, and while they do look a lot, it’s usually just from curiosity. I don’t mind it so much.”
What really gets Surja though, is not the people of Eugene. It is the workplace. Most of her jobs have been non-accepting of even her more discrete modifications, asking her to either remove them or cover them up. Every day, the European native takes most of her facial visible piercings and replaces them with plastic PTFE retainers. She then uses a thick but effective makeup to cover her facial and neck tattoos. Surja must always wear long sleeves and chooses to wear her dark hair down so that she can keep in her ear piercings as well as the plugs adorning her stretched lobes. She says,
“I understand the need to look professional in the workplace. But in a way I feel violated. This is the way I’ve chosen to look. It is clean, non-offensive and presented well to the public. Yet I am forced to cover up and even remove a big part of who I am for the sake of working in the corporate world.”
Surja, who currently works a desk job for a firm where she does not interact with people very often, understands. But she is also saddened by the sacrifice.
Others in Eugene are not so willing to mask their way of life. Samantha Saunders chose to make her living as one of the handful of body piercers in the Eugene/Springfield area. For 25-year-old Saunders, the practice of body modification is for more than one reason.
“I’m Jewish and I was told by the Rabbi’s wife that piercing is the perfect profession for me because in the beginning of Judaism, in the first tribes, the more spiritual woman would pierce themselves. This is the only reason why my orthodox side of the family is supportive of what I do.”
The Memento Ink body piercer, who resides in Springfield, has not always been accepted for her looks. Saunders explains,
“I’m attracted to body mod because I get to make my body as beautiful or as ugly as I feel. I started getting into it to be different from everyone else and I felt persecuted for it since I grew up in Roseburg. I used to get stared at going into the store or just walking down the street. I didn’t even have as many piercings or tattoos as I do today.”
The green-haired mother of two admits to moving to Eugene as to “not feel like a freak.” She states that she has been accepted more so in Eugene than in her hometown. In Roseburg, her own family had been embarrassed to take her to even the most basic of places — such as a dance recital or Wal-mart — because of her modified appearance. She says,
“The town I grew up didn’t understand body modification very well. I am not trying to be dramatic or draw attention to myself. All I have is piercings and tattoos.”
While people of a smaller town may not be ready to accept the more extreme modified appearances like Surja and Saunders, some would argue that it is a matter of professionalism, not just small-town thinking. Courtney Haub, front desk manager of the Phoenix Inn in Eugene, explains that, because Phoenix Inn is owned by a larger corporation, there is a strict policy to be met. Haub says,
“Since we are compared on a national level to hotels such as the Hilton, we have to agree to the same policy.”
Haub herself has various ear piercings. But that is where the Inn draws the line. Facial piercings are not allowed and tattoos must be covered. There are no exceptions to this, even though Eugene is a college town. Haub explains,
“Most people I employ are college students. So many of them have body modifications, but they are usually understanding of the policy coming into the job. They accept that they work with various types of people every day and that many might not be ok with that kind of [modified] appearance. [We] have a large business demographic here, so they expect professionalism overall.”
Haub adds that appearance has an impact on both employee performance and customer perceptions.
Despite Eugene’s stereotype as being more alternative, many companies continue to adhere to strict dress code policies. For example:
• Rachel, an employee at Taco Bell, says she must cover up all tattoos and cannot have any facial piercings.
• Mathias, who works at a game store, was surprised to learn about the “no tattoo” policy. Mathias says,
“I felt odd at first so I felt tattoos would not matter. I am glad they changed the policy and more of the customers agree. It seems most places [in Eugene] are abolishing the “no tattoo” rule and I am glad. Saying no tattoos is like saying you can’t wear jeans, or t shirts.”
• For Myles, working at Target is no big deal. The 39-year-old states,
“They are pretty nonchalant about piercings and tats. If anything, arm sleeves help you fit in at my work.”
It seems many businesses these days are focused on finding a happy medium. Peleg Wadsworth is the front-of-house manager for Bon Appetit, a multi-national catering corporation that provides services for major companies on the West Coast such as Starbucks, Nike, and Intel. Wadsworth explains,
“The food industry is not filled with people who have been to business school. It is not filled with people who are looking at things with the same perspective as the people they are serving.”
Wadsworth expresses that part of the importance of not only his job, but that of his senior managers, is to make sure people look professional in the workplace. The 48-year-old says,
“It’s very much a double edged sword. On one end we have to look presentable to thousands of people for these huge companies, and on the other we should relate to the thousands of students we serve at various colleges who very much enjoy the body modification aspect.”
For Bon Appetit it is all about finding that balance. They try to allow their employees to still have modifications, but provide them with ways to cover them up should they have to. This usually only pertains to those who work directly with people.
Wadsworth adds realistically,
“You have to be enough toward the middle that you don’t offend anybody without losing your personal identity.”
And what are body modifications if not an extension of that identity? For many, that is just the reality of it.
Jason Armstrong, a hiring manager at the Springfield Best Buy, says,
“You have every personal right to cover as much of your body in ink and piercings as you please. But it’s important to know, for right or wrong, certain industries might not be totally accepting.”
University of Oregon student Brianna Kemper sports several facial piercings including a dermal anchor by her eye. Kemper, who works at the on-campus Science Library, was relieved that she doesn’t have to adjust her look for her job. However, she does accept the fact that one day she might. The 21-year-old Eugene native says,
“My piercings and tattoos have not kept me from any getting an internship which include working at a residential treatment center for juveniles. However if I’m working with a child it is my choice to cover up my certain piercings, such as the ones on my chest, so they don’t draw undue attention. But when I’m working with adults I feel I should be able to show off my body modifications as long as I present myself in a professional and modest way.”
Kemper acknowledges she may have to suffer the loss of removing several of her modifications, but for her,
“Putting food on the table is more worth it. If I have to remove any of my piercings it will only be out of necessity. Until that day comes, I will continue to be who I want to be, on the inside and out.”