If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday, 24 September 2010

Any Old Iron

A story in yesterday's Telegraph made me smile. I don't know why, because it's highly irritating, but I smiled.

Hayley O'Neil, 23, was given some unwelcome advice when visiting her local Job Centre:

A woman with 30 tattoos claims she was told to ''put a bag over her head'' when she went for a job interview. Hayley O'Neil, 23, - who also has 20 body piercings - says was also advised to ''stand behind a wall'' when she asked a job centre official what post she could apply for.

Here she is:


The adviser might have been a little clumsy in his approach, but what he said was bang on the money:

"The guy said: 'on first impressions do you think anyone would hire you?' "

I had better 'fess up here, and say that I don't have any tattoos or piercings, and I regard an excess of them as ugly and clichéd - they remind me of kids at school who couldn't stop scribbling on their exercise book covers in blue biro - but as far as I am concerned anyone who wishes to can do whatever they like to their own bodies. Hayley agrees:

"He talked to me as though I was just going through a phase in my life, but this is my lifestyle choice, and this is who I am."

Yay for you, Hayley! Be an individual, just like all the others!

In her crusade for personal freedom, of course, she forgets the other side: if she is free to look however she wishes, then employers are free not to employ her as they wish.

She may think that she is merely expressing a personal lifestyle preference, but a lot of people find highly-visible tattoos and facial piercings quite threatening. If she were a waitress, for example, she might find that a lot of customers won't be too keen to pay a second visit if the person serving them looks like something out of a low-grade circus or a street gang. Employers know this, and tend to prefer employing people who make customers feel comfortable, on the grounds that putting customers off is not a good way to survive in a competitive marketplace.

That's a fact of life, and Hayley's chances of employment are slim until she takes that on board. Until she does, she will be looking for work, while the rest of us pay for her 'lifestyle choice'.

Thanks to Subrosa for the link.


  1. I saw this one and I am inclined to agree. The mistake that this girl has made is to tell us that it is a "lifestyle choice". That is enough to convince me she has fewer grey cells than an amoeba. Sure, she can do what she likes, but she has severely limited her appeal on the job market, so her "lifesyle choice" is our tax bill. Perhaps it should be our lifestyle choice to treat such twattery with the contempt it deserves. Having said that, I know some very nice people who have tattoos, but they have been bright enough to make them invisible in work clothes.

  2. "her "lifesyle choice" is our tax bill"


    I know plenty of people with tattoos, too. Now that 'tats' are utterly mainstream, there is no longer the association with armed forces, merchant navy, prison, and deviancy that there once was, but there is a huge range of designs and locations, and some are really unpleasant. I think the worst I ever saw was a skinhead with FUCK OFF tattooed across his forehead. That one scared me. Almost as bad was a 'hard man' with a dotted line tattooed round his neck with the words 'CUT HERE'. Nasty. Those guys have made confrontation a way of life, permanently. I have no objection to the traditional designs in the usual places. My chief objection is to the yawn-making predictability of yet another swoopy tribal design descending from someone's shirt-sleeves (or sleeve, as they are usually assymetric), or the little 'tramp stamp' just above the bum-cleft of a young lady. On a slim and toned back, rather fetching, but on a pasty muffin top, bleurgh. Sorry if that is judgemental or unkind, but that's how it is.

  3. Those piercings harbour bacteria, that's the problem, otherwise she could get a job in a doughnut factory.

  4. Sorry, but I'm going to have to stick up for Hayley in this. She's not up there in my top list of well-decorated women, but I'm not sure that entitles people to be needlessly rude to her.

    As far as I can see, she isn't guilty of anything except somewhat poor taste. Not a crime, otherwise men would be prosecuted for wearing pink shirts and ostensibly character-neutral - clothes, really, do not maketh the man. Nor is there any proof that she's determined to end up a third-generation welfare burden with hordes of indeterminedly-parented sprogs, or that her hobbies include hanging around street corners intimidating old ladies.

    Painfully naive as her "lifestyle choice" comment may be, that's youngsters for you. It's what they do: kick off against the establishment, shock their parents, rattle the cages of ordinary citizens, try to look edgy and cool and protest against "the system" that oppresses them. Then they grow up a bit and realise that a collection of mediocre tats isn't much of a force for social change and doesn't really define them in any meaningful way. Or they hang up their kaftans, get a haircut, give their mum back the safety-pins - whatever the herding instinct of their particular day was - and get on with the rest of their lives. And each time that happens, the next rebellion has to go incrementally further to make an impact.

    When I was her age, wearing a black leather jacket was still reason enough to get banned from pubs, clubs and Harrods. It was also a tribal allegiance that opened biker-friendly doors. And, to the vast majority, who neither noticed nor cared, it was a matter of complete indifference. I wore mine regardless, and let people pass whatever judgement they chose. It would be hypocrisy to slate others for doing the same thing, whatever their chosen medium of expression.

    So: Hayley. Doing her own genre thing, because she feels it's who she is. Hardly an unusual attitude, given that the liberal rush towards freedom of the individual and any lifestyle being a valid one has been in play since well before she was born. We even have laws to prove it: rafts of them to enshrine the rights of everyone and their dog to exercise any religious, sexual or ethnic mores without discrimination. What we don't seem to have is much to offer a young woman signing on in a deprived post-industrial northern city. Free market policy and the labour pool it requires saw to that 30 years ago, and the state has been steadily expanding welfare support to compensate ever since. Unless she has a hidden ace to play, she's no doubt staring down the barrel of a future where a job is no longer a given, lifetime on welfare is a very real option and minimum wage offers no hope of ever reaching the great consumer dream of a nice house in a leafy suburb.

    It's no surprise her values are unlikely to coincide with mine. Except, perhaps, in the idea that she should be allowed to poke holes in her face if that's what she really wants to do. It may not be big and clever, but it's legal and not harming anybody else. I doubt if it's seriously giving the overall state of the economy much competition in keeping her out of work, or that a few metal trinkets make her irrevocably unemployable.

    My venom goes on the advisor who feels entitled to speak to her like that. At best, perhaps allowing for exasperated good intentions, it's unprofessional and unacceptable behaviour. At worst, it's gratuitous bloody rudeness from someone who has no authority to decide what constitutes acceptability.

    There are a lot of people out there showing a less than aesthetically-perfect face to the world, me included. Anyone expressing the opinion that I fail their standards of beauty and therefore ought to consider wearing a sack would probably want to think about counting their teeth afterwards. It's no way to talk to fellow human beings.

    Not if you expect them to listen.

  5. I commend you for your sympathetic approach, and of course you are not wrong. At least she is trying for a job rather then screwing more benefits, and we have all rebelled in the past. I don't criticise her for her rebellion, just for the idea that other people should be expected to approve of it.

    I think you put your finger on it with the mention of 'entitlement'. She believes that she can dress or look how she pleases and we must all say that's fine and not diss her for her 'valid choices'. When I rebelled (and I imagine you too), I took it as read that some people would not like what I did or how I looked, and would act accordingly. I didn't go whinging to the newspapers about it and claim that I was being victimised.

    If you look at what the adviser actually said, she has misrepresented him. He asked her "who would hire you looking like that?" A question, not an insult, although an insult is what she heard. "On first impressions, do you think anyone would hire you?" It's a fair question, and at no point did he criticise her for her appearance - he just asked some fair and difficult questions. Yes, he was clumsy and inept, and if I were his manager I would be having a few words with him about his manner, but I don't think he did anything unprofessional. He will have wanted her to get a job - his job depends on it - and he thought that getting her to think about her appearance was a good way to start. I have done the same many times.

    I encountered a lot of this when I was doing recruitment in my last job. We were launching a 5-star operation and hoping for some quality customers, so we made it clear in all the job ads that visible tattoos would not be acceptable. And yet we still got truckloads of young Hayleys (and Waynes too) who, when they were told that their tattoos excluded them, kicked up a huge fuss about their 'rights'. Even the ones with semi-visible ones who were told that their tattoos would have to be covered up (by wearing long sleeves, for example), went all human-rights on us and threatened to take us to court for discrimination. That's not something I would have done if anyone had criticised my long hair, beard and silver-eagled leather jacket.

    You make some fair points, though, and debate is good.

  6. Likewise, so do you.

    On re-reading the article, yes, even her account of the "bag over the head" bit suggests it was a hypothetical question rather than a statement. So a downgrade from "unprofessional" to "badly phrased" is definitely in order. To be fair, I do also have sympathy for Job Centre employees. I signed on, briefly, after leaving university and had to share queue space with some people who could have done with a good hard slapping, never mind just a talking-to. I can believe it's a pretty thankless and frustrating old job.

    I agree entirely, too, that I wouldn't have been touting any insults I might have received to the national press, even if there had been a market for it back then. Or threatening to sue all and sundry for being mean to me. I've always believed that house rules apply and if they don't happen to accommodate your personal wishes, tough - you can choose to comply with them, or find somewhere else to be.

    But that's the whole point of being rebellious: it has to come with a cost to have any meaning. Choosing to buck the social norm, by definition, requires mainstream non-acceptance to validate it. The part that the entitlement generation fail to grasp seems to be that the negative consequences are an essential component of that validation. Really, they should be pleased with the success of their individual statements, rather than feeling insulted, if their appearance is declared unsuitable for a traditional role. (As long as that declaration is made in civil manner, of course - I still don't believe rudeness over appearance is appropriate).

    My main issue, really, is more about social evolution over the past few decades. Not that I've had much say in it and I voted against most of the manifestos that have been enacted in the last 25 years. Still, there's a sense of guilt that I am a part of the generation which has let things become the way they are. In many respects, it seems genuinely unfair to expect the youth of today to know any better. Many of the things we complain about are all they've ever known - they've had to grow up in increasingly shallow, cotton-wool-wrapped, materialistic, self-obsessed times with no point of reference from which to find alternatives. It's our society that's failing to give them a realistic framework of discipline, effort, prospect and reward to work inside and then demonising the results rather than the causes.

    It's quite possible, of course, that that's the way every generation feels about the next one and this is just the natural conservatism that comes with getting older. Maybe the youngsters are quite happy with the way their future is shaping up and I simply don't understand their worldview enough. Maybe, even, the continued abdication of personal responsibility (for example) is a step towards a more genuinely egalitarian form of civilisation, rather than one that is merely lacking in values. But it doesn't seem to me to be an improving state of affairs, and there is a sense of national disintegration that wasn't present when I was coming of age. That's why I'm disposed to be sympathetic to the likes of Hayley: because I feel that, through no real fault of their own, they've been given far too much scope and far too little guidance on their lifestyle choices.

  7. Endo, that's such a sensible and well-written comment that I would like to elevate it to a post by itself. Do you have any objection to that?

  8. *Blushes* Nice of you to ask - no objections whatsoever.


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