Stand by for the outrage from the likes of Melanie Phillips (and my mum): Virgin Atlantic have announced that they’ll no longer ask cabin staff to cover up their tattoos, the first airline in the UK to do so. At last, employers are catching up to the reality of life in modern Britain: that’s right, ink is professional, now.
Don’t believe me? Look around you at those in every industry – from service personnel to those in management positions, from banks to schools, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, offices and (yes, us too) the media. We all have tattoos.
Most of my colleagues have them, my friends too – one, a corporate lawyer, has a full back piece; another (a primary school teacher) has floral fine lines and fauna decorating her chest, one (who works for a prestigious bank) a full sleeve. A friend who works in PR recently got two new swallows, vintage-style, on each of her wrists, and one of my mates owns a busy high-end restaurant and is covered in them. I asked Jess Phillips, the MP, if she had any tattoos: “I have six,” she told me. “And I’m not afraid to say it.” On the Voices desk, we have 49 tattoos between three of us.
So, if most of us have them, what’s all the fuss about? Why are we still demonising and stigmatising those who have tattoos – making tattoos about class and snobbery when tattoos transcend all of that; when we quite literally entrust our lives to those who have them – doctors, surgeons, police officers? Why does the topic of tattoos provoke such fierce debate and consternation, and why should any of us cover our skin at work when our tattoos are part of us and are integral to who we are? A company “dress code” can still apply if you really want it to. Just leave our tattoos out of it.
If you’re offended by tattoos, as some profess to be, then I think it’s time to ask yourself why. I’d guess it says a lot more about you than it does the person you’re looking at.
I remember growing up and being told (half) jokingly by my parents that if I ever got a tattoo, I’d be thrown out of the house – so I did what any self respecting, rebellious (yet fearful) teenager would do: I got them in secret. But I’ll confess that as recently as my 40th birthday, last year, on a boiling hot summer’s day, I went for lunch with my mum and dad and panicked. I made sure I wore long sleeves so they didn’t catch sight of my arms. My fourth decade on the planet, and I’m still hiding my tattoos from my parents.
Virgin Atlantic’s surprisingly groundbreaking decision is a start, but it’s clear we have a long way to go to stop judging those who choose to get inked. Why else would my childminder (a sensible, smart girl who’s studying English literature at university) breathe such a huge sigh of relief when she met me and said she’d been told by other families to cover her tattoos at all times, but now realised with me she wouldn’t have to? Why are we all still such prudes?
Finally, there’s a societal shift happening – or maybe it’s just that businesses are starting to cotton on to the fact that, well, having tattoos really isn’t that big a deal, and most of the adult population has them. After all, we have a rich history of tattoos in this country; as Matt Lodder, a heavily-tattooed art historian (see? It’s academics, as well) explains so beautifully and thoughtfully here.
It’s worth examining what may have prompted the sudden change at Virgin. Have they finally caught up with our collective attitude shift, or is it part of a wider rebranding? The company has already started a new ad campaign with the tagline “See the world differently”, centred around its staff; it has TikTok and in 2019 began supplying trousers as standard to all staff – as well as changing the rules so female staff do not have to wear make-up.
It could seem to the untrained eye that Virgin is trying to be the “cool kid” of the travel industry, which tends to conjure up stereotypical images of being uptight and “proper”; of women in pencil skirts or two pieces, heels and make-up, and the slick waft of hairspray as they walk the aisles of a plane. Not any longer. Now we see ink.
Estelle Hollingsworth, Virgin Atlantic’s chief people officer, said restrictions were being relaxed “in line with our focus on inclusion and championing individuality”. She told The Independent: “We want everyone to be themselves and know that they belong. Many people use tattoos to express their unique identities and our customer-facing and uniformed colleagues should not be excluded from doing so if they choose.” She also said tattoos that are offensive must remain covered up, and that neck, face and head tattoos must still be covered – but that this is currently under review “and we hope to change this policy in phase two”.
Perhaps Virgin is just reflecting what their customers look like; a tacit acceptance of the reality of what it is to be human: warts, tats and all. A celebration of what makes us different.
Or perhaps it’s something else: I spoke to one former airline worker, who wanted to stay anonymous. He told me it is a “big step” for any airline to be allowing tattoos. “It will open the door for lots of new people to apply, and more airlines may follow suit, but I personally think it’s more likely due to widespread desperation in getting more people to apply to a failing industry,” he said.
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“It takes nothing away from the fact that airline staff across the board are poorly paid, poorly treated and often overworked. A number of airlines got rid of their permanent ground staff during Covid and brought in contractors from companies that supply airline staff and ground solution companies – this allowed them to do away with ‘permanent staff’ and save millions by paying lower rates and not offering cheap travel, as they didn’t have to. Ultimately, it also meant they did not having to train the ground staff, as all ground operations were undertaken by the third party company.
“A lot of flight teams had their contracts essentially cancelled, and in most cases people were forced to reapply on poorer terms. Thousands of staff members – ground and air – were let go over the pandemic, and airlines are definitely feeling the ramifications of it, so while this seems like a really cool and edgy thing for Virgin to do, I feel it could be more a case of them saying ‘we’ll take anyone, we’re f****** desperate’.”
A spokeswoman for the airline told The Independent that Virgin Atlantic, which slashed a third of its workforce in 2020, is not struggling to recruit staff, and pointed out that their last recruitment drive saw 5000 applicants apply for 400 roles, including “record applications” from candidates with ethnically diverse backgrounds, alongside those with disabilities. “Overall, we are sufficiently resourced for our operations,” she said, adding: “although Covid-19 spikes have caused some challenges, Virgin Atlantic has not cancelled anywhere near to the same extent as BA and EasyJet.”
The motivation for the decision may not be clear, but one thing is: tattoos are, quite literally, here to stay. That’s the whole point. And if you really don’t like them, maybe you’re the one with the problem.