Being a Tattooed Professional

When I got my first tattoo, my mom thought it was a joke and prayed that it was fake. “How are you going to be a doctor?”, she said. Well mom, I guess I’m going to be a different kind of doctor. Over the years, I’d say there have been progress towards accepting tattoos in the workplace. The existing research is still inconclusive. The truth is, I think it depends on your tattoos, how comfortable you are with it’s visibility, and your profession.

Tattoos and colored hair has always been my way of self-expression. And I would feel untrue to myself to give it up in order for others to feel like I know what I’m doing. When I was in graduate school, I was warned by a professor who said therapists should look professional and not have pink hair. During my traineeship, I found that my pink/blue/rainbow hair (it changed depending on my mood) helped my clients feel more relaxed with me. I was seen as more down to earth and easy to connect with. It could also be that I worked primarily with children and teens, so colored hair was just cool, plain and simple. At the time, I only had 1-2 small tattoos on my arms so it wasn’t a big deal that it was visible.

As I added more to my sleeve though, I started to get questions about whether it’s appropriate for a professional who already has many odds against her (being young, childless, and unmarried at the time) to have more and more tattoos. The reality of it is that I have to manage two identities, my “tattooed self” and my “professional self”. When I was working at a rehab with lower income folks, people wanted me to be their therapist. I appeared more approachable, and I looked like I had gone through some s***. Now, it’s not quite the same with my private practice clients. I still wear long sleeves or cardigans to work especially when I meet parents for the first time. Though I usually don’t cover up with my teens or young adults. And I have to admit, I don’t know what my clients would say if they saw my tattoos. But it’s my own fears that they will judge me by my appearance without seeing the great work that I do. Sometimes I wonder if it would change anything for my long standing clients of 1-2 years.

To be on the safe side, you could consider getting tattoos that you can easily cover up. My office is always freezing so I would be wearing a cardigan or blazer anyway! But neck, hand, finger, face, dark-themed tattoos are going to be something you’d have to really think about as the old fashioned stigma still stands. This would also depend on your industry. I had colleagues who work in substance use counseling and their neck or chest tattoos didn’t make them any less appealing to their clients.

Despite how open people are becoming, there’s still going to be stigma and discrimination. Ideally, you should get tattoos that would make you happy and would allow you to be true to yourself. It’s just unfortunate that other people might judge you from it even if you’re amazing at what you do.

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