Every now and then, a thread does the rounds on Twitter.
This time, it started in early October, 2019, from an academic looking for feedback on their department chairs' request that they cover their tattoos, especially for conferences and job talks. And so follows the outrage, the glorious sharing of imagery, the support. And of course the hashtag – #AcademicTats.
What is of interest to me, especially in the research I’ve done and am continuing to do in this area, is the kinds of things being brought up on the thread (of which there are many responses) - the kinds of support, the conversations being had, the exclamations of narrowmindedness.
Scrolling through the replies on this most recent thread on tattooed academic bodies, there are a few key themes that can be identified. For anyone reading this who is tattooed, you’ll identify – we love an opportunity to show off our inkings. Images shared by other academics – regardless of sex – are colourful, large, visible, bold. They are exclamations of excess, with high numbers of tattoos being recorded on these academic bodies, implying (as well as some making it explicit) that the amount of coverage you have or the number of tattoos you have is not significantly correlated to your level of intelligence. Some do talk about their tattoos as being coverable, as to appease those who make comment. The tattoos being discussed on this thread hold meanings – there are sharings of family, of motivations, of achievement, and of future tattoo plans.
Coming back to the main focus of the argument – so many of us in academia are tattooed, and we are visible, and we are making a stand. So why does this argument keep cropping up time and time again? It says something bigger about the traditional (outdated) views of academia – it hints at (1) the ‘professional’ identity and (2) the kinds of bodies that occupy academic spaces.
Professionalism is in itself an interesting area, seemingly in flux, with much resistance but also a sense of conformity to the norms. I remember myself, when I first started lecturing, I was very aware of how I dressed (especially for being a woman in academia, but that’s another blog post for another day). I felt the need for stereotypical tweed jackets with the elbow patches. And it took me a good few years to get to the point I am now, with tattoos highly visible alongside my favourite art teacher/witchy/bold colour aesthetic. It is within this pull and push of traditional views of professional dress (and thus, identity) that we see fluctuations and welcome difference, whilst also serving to reinforce what is considered ‘normal’ in the realms of ‘the professional’. In my research, it was suggested that to be professional is to not mark your body – in this, there is an implicit (perhaps explicit?) rejection of appearing working class, because of course, that’s the antithesis of the academy?
On that note, let’s talk bodies. Specifically, working class bodies. Coming back to my research, the answer was not a simple one - the body is complex, and the women I spoke with articulated overlapping, contrasting, and contradictory views of tattooed bodies. Though, one of the main things that was threaded throughout all of the discussions was that of class. Tattoos are the symbol traditionally associated with the working-class body. They are the permanent marker of class, clearly distinguishing types of bodies and types of people. This is not to say that tattoos themselves have not become gentrified, because they have – taken by the middle class as alluring, mysterious, little hints of rebellion. But. The different ways in which tattoos are seen (and even referred to – ‘artwork’ as a great example) are still regulated, regardless of class. To be done ‘right’, they should not be visible, they should be small, and most of all, meaningful (you can find my open access paper in the importance of meaning in tattoos here).
It feels too simplistic for me to say that things will change. I’ve been researching this area for many years now, and also have many more years of personal experience of being tattooed and being in academia. But I do think it is within the resistance and the questioning of traditions, identities, and the spaces (working-class) bodies occupy that will continue to shape such discussions, and change.