It's reader question day at The Careerist. This one is about pushing the limits of personal style:
I work in a prestigious boutique firm on corporate and commercial transactions. I am female, and I am heavily tattooed all over—and I mean all over. I wear very conservative suits that "cover up" and this has never been a problem, since I anticipated this when I got tattooed. In more social situations I still insist on covering up, but I take care to dress well.
I have noticed that tattoos on male lawyers seem to be fine—something people admire, or a conversation piece if done tastefully. But tattoos on women are not so positively received. Does this depend on how brazen the piece is? Do you have any views on this?
Frankly, I'm not so sure that male lawyers with tattoos are accepted either. I think most lawyers—especially older ones—cringe at the sight of tattoos on either sex. Most lawyers, I suspect, see tattoos as antithetical to the image of the upstanding corporate lawyer.
But given the prevalence of tattoos these days, I don't think they are total career killers either. Ironically, I think young women professionals can get away with some artwork on their skin easier than men. (Is it because women have a bit more creative leeway in the way they dress?) In fact, I know a few young women lawyers (okay, just two) with tiny tattoos—such as butterflies—on their wrists or ankles, and they're not on probation at their firms.
It all comes down to the size of the inking (I'm also assuming the image is not offensive). So to answer your question—does it depend on how brazen the tattoo is?—the answer is yes. And if you're heavily tattooed, as you say you are, that's definitely brazen.
So if you want to make it in corporate law and have copious tattoos, you really have no choice but to cover up, even when it's 100 degrees outside. Stephen Lucin, a style consultant in Washington, D.C., suggests that you wear "layers of thin business clothing that are appropriate during the hot summer months." I'm not quite sure what that means, but I imagine lots of cotton shirts and pants, set off with some gauzy scarfs.
If it's any consolation, I think tattoos will gain more corporate acceptance—albeit gradually, and probably limited to ones that are "dainty" and localized. Even law partners who wince at them now might change their minds, especially if their sons or daughters come home from college sporting designs on their bodies.
In the meantime, though, I have a question for you: What's a nice, very-tattooed lady like you doing in a starchy law firm? You might perform your job brilliantly, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the constraints of corporate culture might not be for you.
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