Body Art, As Promised

July 12, 2008 at 6:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

(June 5, 2007)

Something came up today that reminded me I had mentioned writing a post on body art a few months back.  It’s my assistant – her baby-daddy is a tattoo artist, and she, of course, has a bunch of tats in various places.  Today she wore a dress with bare legs, displaying maybe 1/3 her collection.  She had actually checked with me yesterday, and I said they weren’t against the dress code, so sure.  It was a completely modest black dress that came slightly below the knee, with leopard-spot flats and little rhinestone glasses.  Cute, huh?

So the HR director calls me over and wants to vent.  She’s all torn up because she’s been cringing all day lest someone come to her and complain about the tattoos.  She knows we don’t have anything about them in our dress code – and she should know, since a) she wrote it and b) she has a couple of tattoos herself.  She’s trying to figure out what to do, because she wants to be able to make people cover up their tattoos and take out their body jewelry when The Head Honchos come to town, and she’s not sure how to do it.  It turns out the state labor department website addresses this issue.  I paraphrase: “Employees mistakenly believe they have a right to display tattoos and body piercings in the workplace as a form of personal expression.  Employers have wide latitude in restricting this sort of display for business reasons.”  (Don’t have a log-in to the site, had to try to remember what I read, sorry).  So it looks like the dress code at our office may be revamped soon.

Here’s something ironic:  One of the tattoos in question violates the dress code!  It’s a figure of a woman in a corset and thigh-high fishnet stockings, about 10″ high.  On the other leg there’s a little skull with butterfly wings.  (There are a couple more, too).  It raises the question, can an employer require tattoos of particular content or imagery to be covered?  For instance, what if you worked at Fourbucks and you had a tattoo of their logo with a big red line through it?  Or you got a tattoo with your boss’s name and “Screw You” written above it?  Or what if you got a tattoo of a nude photo of yourself?  (Hmm, this game is kinda fun – now you try!)

This is actually one of the motivations behind body art.  It’s a theme that appears throughout history in various cultures.  Tattoos and piercings, along with branding, scarification, and other physical modifications, can signify tribal initiation and membership.  They can provide access to a spiritual epiphany.  They can demonstrate sexual maturation.  They can provide a palette for artistic expression.  More importantly for our purposes, body modification can symbolize a person’s ownership of the body – his own, or others’.  Examples here include Viking thralls having their heads shaved and Nazis tattooing Jews in the concentration camps.

In the mid-19th century South, a sort of “fight club” was trendy for a while.  Poor white men would beat the holy heck out of each other, pounding each other’s faces into hamburger, knocking teeth out, the works.  What was behind it?  Well, obviously the male inability to back away from any kind of competition when his masculinity is in question.  But why so extreme?  Simply, these men needed to demonstrate – to themselves, as well as spectators – how they were different from slaves.  They were dirt poor and had no social status.  The only thing such a man really did have was his own body.  Taking brutal punishment was his way of saying, my property is my own to deface however I wish.

I think this is part of the contemporary body art phenomenon.  How do you react in the face of corporate strictures on dress, behavior, and speech?  It’s not like you can just go out and clear 40 acres of forest for a homestead any time you want.  In our milieu, if you want to eat, you have to work.  Work often means wearing things you don’t want to wear and having a haircut and makeup that make you feel like a mannekin.  You have to bite back certain choice things you might really want to say.  You have to show up at the designated time and location, no matter how much every cell in your body demands that you stay home and get more sleep.  How different is that from slavery?

To make matters worse, there’s a not-so-subtle form of thought control in Corporate Land, too.  Those at the top of the hierarchy devote large portions of their time trying to find ways to Motivate Employees, to convince us to put the company’s needs ahead of our own, and to think about The Company in every waking moment.  Mission statements.  Core values.  Leadership retreats.  Incentive programs.  T-shirts.  Stuffed animal mascots.  Keychains.  It goes on.

One of the great laws of the workplace is that the lower you are in the wage-earning hierarchy, the stricter the dress code.  You’ll notice that the majority of people who wait on you in the retail and fast-food sectors are in uniform.  An inverse relationship is created here, between actual power and desire for personal expression.  This perhaps explains why so many people who earn virtually nothing are nevertheless so eager to spend money on tattoos, piercings, hair dye, clothing… There’s a basic human need, almost to the point of desperation, to show a unique identity to the world.  The tighter the control, the harder the individual will seek for the last remaining loophole.

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