Thousands of people around the globe have expressed their support for a young nurse who was told her rainbow-coloured hair was not a suitable look for someone in her profession.
Mary Walls Penney, a nurse specialising in Alzheimer’s and dementia treatment in Raleigh County, West Virgina, took to social media to express her dismay at being judged on her looks.
“It’s the old analogy – don’t judge a book by its cover”
UK nurses are among those who have applauded her comments, in which she pointed out that her bright hair, tattoos and multiple piercings have never stopped her delivering great care.
In her post on Facebook, which has since been shared by more than 150,000 people around the world, Ms Penney described how she was challenged on the colour of her hair when she popped into a shop after work.
The nurse, who has blonde hair streaked with vibrant shades of pink, purple, yellow and blue, said she was asked by a cashier what she did for a living.
When Ms Penney explained she was a nurse, the shop assistant said: “I’m surprised they let you work there like that. What do your patients think about your hair?
“Then the cashier continued to comment they didn’t allow that sort of thing, even when she worked in fast food and that she was shocked a nursing facility would allow that,” recalled Ms Penney.
“The trend in the NHS is towards staff being able to express themselves”
When she returned home, the nurse put her thoughts into words in a spirited defence of her appearance and nursing abilities that has since gone viral.
“I can’t recall a time that my hair colour has prevented me from providing life saving treatment to one of my patients,” she wrote.
“My tattoos have never kept them from holding my hand as they lay frightened and crying because Alzheimer’s had stolen their mind,” she said.
“My multiple ear piercings have never interfered with me hearing them reminisce about their better days or listening to them as they express their last wishes,” said Ms Penney.
“My tongue piercing has never kept me from speaking words of encouragement to a newly-diagnoses patient or from comforting a family that is grieving,” she added.
“So, please explain to me how my appearance has made me unfit to provide nursing care and unable to do my job,” she said.
UK nursing leaders voiced their support and said nurses should be judged on the standard of care they delivered and not their appearance.
“The colour or style of a person’s hair has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with them being able to practise safely and effectively,” said Gail Adams, head of nursing at Unison.
She said nurses sometimes dyed their hair bright colours to raise money for charity and some had even shaved their heads.
“Modern nurses and midwives reflect society – we come in all different shapes and sizes, have different eye colours, hair colours, hair styles,” said Ms Adams.
“I have been cared for by people from all walks of life and I care more about how they look after me than what they look like,” she said.
“It’s the old analogy – don’t judge a book by its cover,” she said. “You judge somebody by their ability to care for you, how they look after you, speak to you and how they meet your needs.”
She acknowledged individual patients may not like tattoos, but added “they do not detract from someone’s ability to practise good care”.
However, when it came to piercings, Ms Adams noted that they could pose a safety risk in some care settings. “Piercings can on occasion be an issue if you are restraining someone or if someone is aggressive,” she said.
“I have seen nurses wearing earrings that have been pulled out of ears so there are sometimes safety issues but that often depends on the environment you’re working in,” she added.
Paul Deemer, head of diversity and inclusion at NHS Employers, said: “NHS organisations have long established dress code policies which give transparent information to their staff while considering how best to put patients at ease.
“Employers should not be afraid of dress codes,” he said. ”There are many legitimate health and safety, business and practical reasons in the NHS why dress codes are not just important, but sometimes vital.
“However, employers must ensure that they have a legitimate reason for imposing a dress code that can stand up to scrutiny,” said Mr Deemer.
“Overall, the trend in the NHS is towards staff being able to express themselves, and it will continue to move with the times,” he added.