What is a “Professional” Body?

Chinese business woman with an arm tattoo

Photo Credit: eyesfoto

When we apply for a job, we think about how our skill set, scholastic background, references, and work credentials will “look” to an employer. Unfortunately, for many applicants, they also might wonder if prospective employers think they have the right “look” for the job.

Beauty standards and professional presentation have evolved over time, yet workplaces remain divided over what sort of appearance is regarded as “professional”. In this blog, we will investigate elements of physical appearance that are met with adversity in the workplace as well as what employers can do to transform the idea of the “professional look”.

Tattoos, facial piercings, and unconventional hair colors and styles used to be niche, countercultural forms of expression. Today, young people are far more likely to alter their appearance through these means. One study found that “29 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo; women are more likely than men to have one, and the prevalence of tattoos is higher among those ages 18-40.” Statista found that, “in 2017, 17% of respondents had one facial piercing, 17% had multiple piercings and 14% were considering getting a piercing.” The average millennial has had eight different hairstyles, and within the staggering majority of women (75%) who dye their hair, “One-third of women surveyed would even consider an unconventional color, with purple (41%), pink (38%), and blue (35%) ranking the highest.”  Yet, despite younger employers having a more neutral to positive outlook on tattoos, piercings, and unconventional hair, there are some employers with a more “traditional” view of what a professional looks like, and that bias often prevents them from onboarding talented and brilliant applicants. Nearly a quarter of hiring managers surveyed admitted to finding tattoos, non-traditional hair colors, and non-traditional piercings to be unacceptable.

What’s particularly ironic is that, under some circumstances, employers will outright pressure people into shifting their physical appearance. In 2022, one woman shared that her employer pressured her to dye her gray hair, which speaks to a larger issue about the ways in which women are permitted to age in public life. This is not only ageist, but it demonstrates that so many of our systems attempt to create a rigid visual ideal of what a public-facing professional looks like and may contradict their own practices to achieve that.

Even more common sets of criteria that face prejudice in the workplace are weight and Black hairstyles. As we wrote in a previous blog, “Since weight is not a protected class in the United States, weight discrimination is all too common in the workplace. The Obesity Action Coalition observes that negative stigma towards larger bodies fuels pay disparities, selective hiring, lack of upward mobility, and even termination.” Furthermore, while race is a protected class, Black hairstyles have long been the subject of vitriol and discrimination. A 2023 CROWN Workplace Research study found that not only was, “Black women’s hair was two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional,” but also that, “A quarter of the Black women surveyed believe they were denied a job because of their hair.” While some states have made legislation to counteract this form of racism in work and school settings, it still persists as an issue around the country.

Previously, we have written about disability discrimination in the workplace. While not all disabilities are visible, people with visible ones often face prejudice and presumptions about their competence, ability, and intelligence. Disability may be covered as a protected class, but discrimination against this community is far too common. This too feeds into the idea that only one type of body belongs at work.

All of this overwhelmingly conveys a message: only certain bodies are valued. The very worst part of this idea is that the snap judgment of a body negates the value of the mind it holds, which hinders our collective ability to learn, progress, and evolve.

In order to broaden your talent pool and make people with an array of bodies feel welcome at your workplace, here are some recommendations you might consider:

Create Guidelines that Reflect Company Values

Rather than leaving room for bias, make clear to hiring managers and others in supervisory positions that any appearance policy should be based on company values, not personal distaste. For example, Dunkin allows for tattoos as long as “’depictions of violence, foul language, nudity, or symbolism’ that may be offensive to guests must be covered during working hours.” For piercings, make it company policy that they are welcome as long as wearing them is not a concern for workplace safety. Applicants should be able to review your policies and see them as common-sense measures, not a means to exclude.

Have a Policy Overview

Consider reevaluating your policies and procedures to encompass weight-related and natural hair-related discrimination. RALIANCE would be proud to work with you to find ways to modify your policies and procedures to make them more equitable to all of your colleagues.

Change Your Company Image

Consider featuring people with a diverse range of appearances on your public-facing materials. This is a direct way to convey to your audience, colleagues, and your field your commitment to creating a workspace that sees value in everyone.

This year, we hope to see workplaces continue to welcome more and more people in the door. We hope that you will join us in saying that the most professional thing to do is recognize that professionalism, skill, talent, and innovation can come from anywhere.

RALIANCE is a trusted adviser for organizations committed to building cultures that are safe, equitable, and respectful. RALIANCE offers unparalleled expertise in serving survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse which drives our mission to help organizations across sectors create inclusive environments for all. For more information, please visit www.RALIANCE.org.


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