American politics was not created with me in mind- a queer, nonbinary parent with tattoos and piercings.
For the last ten years, I have heard various forms of, “That’s not professional.” But, what does it mean to be professional? Who gets to define professional? To me, it means stifling the ways I express myself while appeasing white power structures in the workplace and in the body politick. The concept of professionalism and politics go hand in hand- the status quo is important to upholding white supremacy through policy priorities and administrative action. It has little to do how we conduct ourselves at work or with other professionals and experts.
When I was growing up, I was fascinated with makeup, tattoos, piercings, hairstyles, and different kinds of clothes. My parents always told me I would grow out of it because in the real world, people who wanted to be taken seriously didn’t get body modifications and had only one hole per ear. I got my first tattoo when I was 19 years old. It’s a tortoise with lilies. For a month or so, I had my septum pierced, but my job at a casino required me to cover everything up when I was an undergraduate. Did these body modifications keep me from being productive or take away what knowledge I have? No, of course not.
As I started volunteering more and more for campaigns, never once did I see staffers with tattoos or piercings, dyed hair, jean shorts, or even campaigning while pregnant or parenting until 2016. Wearing jeans on the campaign trail was a signal that one was a volunteer, not a staffer whose authority was to be taken seriously. When I was accepted into graduate school, I was determined to not only be taken seriously as a student, a scholar, and a professional but to change the way young people bring our full selves into our work in the ways that are comfortable for us by setting the example of how we can dress comfortably and still compose a great email.
After I had my daughter when I was 22, I got my bellybutton pierced as a way to help me process my feelings about my changing body and to have a body modification that was easily covered. Throughout adulthood, piercings, tattoos, and makeup have been my ways of processing what I’m feeling, experiencing, and loving myself. As a queer and Indigenous person, finding ways to love myself and still be an expert in my field is radical. I do not regret either of my nipple piercings, I do not shy away from wearing black lipstick in public or rocking the biggest hoops I can find. I take extra care to dress up in the way that makes me comfortable when I meet with legislators but not in the traditional ways that are expected of women in politics or business: pencil skirts, blazer, button down shirt, minimal makeup. I have heard from colleagues their stories about well intentioned pieces of advice about how to be taken seriously on Capitol Hill- don’t wear eyeliner, don’t curl your hair, nothing too tight but not too boxy, don’t have long hair, try to keep your hair short, simple pearl earrings and not anything too flashy, muted colors, navy blue is best. I know that I can speak to New Mexico State House and Senate leadership about my work creating political advertisements during the election, create a comprehensive digital engagement program plan for my organization that is taken seriously (because I’m the expert), and still have three holes in my nose.
After the 2018 midterm elections, I have a lot of hope. My own Congresswoman, Deb Haaland (D-NM) has beautiful tattoos on her back. I’ve seen pictures of staff people with studs in their noses. There are more queer people running for office and winning- many of these folks have body modifications. There is an Indigenous woman who beat a Republican that sponsored a bill to disenfranchise her own Native community; she was sworn in in her traditional regalia- a radical thing to happen in politics because again, this arena was not created for anyone not male and white.
Politics is usually sexist, ageist, racist, and homophobic but the times are a-changing. The 2018 elections did not happen in a vacuum. The elections were successful up and down the ballot because we know that we- people of color, queer people, migrants, Indigenous folks, single parents with all the ways that we physically show up in the world- are the people best fit to lead our communities and the country that has tried so hard to silence us. I hope to pave the way for people after me to show up in politics however they choose and still be the expert in the room.