Reprint: Body Modification in Nurses

I wrote this for another blog and am reposting here because of the number of comments I’ve gotten about it. Most of them are along the lines of “I never thought of it that way.” I generally don’t re-post myself, but thought is good, so without further do, this is reprinted in full from the original.

I had dinner with a friend who is pierced and tattooed and sits in front of computers all day. “I’m surprised,” she said, “that they let you have all that. Don’t they harbor bacteria?”

For those who don’t know, I have currently the (above neck) piercings: nostril, septum, bilateral lobes stretched to 0 gauge, rook, tongue, labret, and forward helix. But at work I tone all that down to the ear piercings, nostril, and lip. Sometimes not even the nostril. And I wear micro gems in both anyway. In my lobes I almost always wear solid plugs that look like normal earrings. I usually leave the tongue bar in for purposes mentioned below, but I’m one of those closed-mouth talkers where it’s not that noticeable and I can leave it out for up to a week with no issues if needed. After that I have to jaaaaam it back in. Anyway.

Before I address the bacteria issue, I should mention that most objections against bod-mods in nurses are that patients will be bothered by it. I know it’s got to be heavily regional and so on, but my experience is solidly the opposite. So many people have piercings and tattoos that it’s accepted by nearly everyone around here. I say “nearly” but have never had anyone have a negative reaction. On the contrary, the number of times people have complimented me on a piercing or tattoo is so high I wouldn’t even know it. And the elderly LOVE them some facial piercings. The argument that they’ll be offended is bunkum and twaddle. “I love your sparkly lip!” I’ve heard dozens of times. “That’s so cute.” I even cared for a 70-year old with 7 piercings in one ear!

And for peds, people borrow me for my tongue. Many a toddler is swayed by “if you stick out your tongue, I’ll stick out mine, and I have a big EARRING in there!” They love that. Curiosity nearly always wins. It’s far better than holding them down and wrestling a tongue blade down their throats while they scream. Instead they laugh. “Shiny!”

Perception aside, let’s talk about…perception. Do body piercings harbor bacteria? No doubt. A cursory search on PubMed revealed no studies. But research DOES show that rings, fingernail polish, and long nails harbor bacteria, yet these things are allowed. So I pose the question: is it an infection issue or a perception issue here? People are used to lobe piercings and giant studded wedding rings and laquered nails, the last two of which are known to harbor bacteria.

Is it just what we’re used to? Because I’m not seing any evidence that body piercing is unhygienic.

Pierced people are incredibly consciencious about hygiene because we don’t want nasty infected piercings. My face is probably cleaner than most people’s because I clean it a lot. And I don’t rub it on patients. Bacteria-infested wedding rings, tolerated in all hospitals, DO touch patients. So do long fingernails (also tolerated). So do bracelets and watches. I shudder to think about what bracelets get dragged through. I mean, literally, I shudder.

But people are USED to bracelets and wedding rings. As for ear piercings, why are lobe piercings OK but not cartilage piercings? I have two holes in each ear. Should the location matter? Why?

If it’s a matter of pure fashion sense, I’m going to call foul. I don’t like big hairsprayed hair, I don’t like bangles, and I think heavy makeup looks trashy. But a coworker can legitimately come to work looking like a New Orleans whore whereas I might be censured for having a sparkle in my lip and one in my nostril, despite my hair being clean and pulled back, my face scrubbed, and my hands clean and nails clean and short.

I think we just need to PONDER this a little bit. I’m not suggesting that big swastikas tattoed on your face are all right, but this issue is only going to get more prevalent.

About Megen Duffy

view all posts

Megen Duffy, RN, BA, BSN, CEN, is a practicing nurse, blogger, and contributing editor for the American Journal of Nursing. Megen has practiced in a variety of settings from emergency rooms to prisons.