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Support for US nurse criticised over hair colour


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”

Gail Adams

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”

Paul Deemer

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.

Gail Adams

Gail Adams

Gail 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.


Readers' comments (23)

  • oh dear....this is really down to what the work culture requires of you.
    Sometimes appearance does matter but some times it consent. what ever the visual perspective, professional behaviour must never fall short

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  • I think this debate is much wider but is worth having and we may be missing the point. Can I first acknowledge that I have been nursing for 39 years and am therefore neither young nor cool!
    Whilst I agree we all come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes our appearance does matter. It speaks volumes about us to our patients and some of them lose confidence is us if we appear "out there" odd, unusual and certainly if we appear "unprofessional".
    I totally accept that tattoos and hair colour do not affect the ability to care but they may affect what weight patients, relatives and other professionals place on what we say and how much they respect our opinion, skills and knowledge. As a profession we have fought for years to be heard, to be a graduate profession, to have advanced roles, to get involved in research, nurse innovation and nurse led services. It would be foolish to think that how society perceives "professionals" and "professionalism" or a lack of professionalism does not matter - it does. Appearance is as much a part of that as anything else. As a young male nurse I remember that my single ear piercing distracted relatives when I managed the care home that their parents were in. I removed it, not because it affected my care but because it affected their trust and confidence in me and was an additional barrier that they and I did not need.

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  • 5:53 I totally agree would anyone want to be nursed by someone wearing inappropriate clothing. There is a dress code and is from this dress code respect from our peers, colleagues and patients are obtained. Granted this nurse I think works in the US. Different rules apply over there nurses are allowed to wear acrylic nails etc.

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  • I worked in a big US hospital where dress code was comparable to what it is in the UK.
    Body piercings should not be worn by nurses or assistants having contact or potential contact with patients, and their managers should set an example.
    Tattoos also are inappropriate for nurses and I sympathise with policies that require prospective staff not to have them or for them to be covered, especially facial tattoos.

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  • Anyone who is face to face with clients in any sphere is expected to abide by some kind of dress code. Personally I cannot see any harm in multi coloured hair, but if the employer does then the nurse concerned has two choices, abide by the rule or leave!

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  • As a person that once experienced serious mental health problems, but also a double trained nurse. I couldn't be treated by one senior nurse with tattoos on her lower arm simply because I couldn't see her as 'nurse'I found her tattoos a real distraction and had no faith in her ability to 'be professional'!. I had no respect for her as a nurse in the same way that I would have no respect for a nurse that came to work in high heels, or wellington boots.
    As patients we expect standards, and as a nurse myself, I felt so proud to be clean, smart and appropriately dressed for duty. Sadly today we do not have old style matrons, and sad to say, some of the modern matrons fall short of the dress code that I would expect from a senior member of staff.
    As for coloured hair ... so many nurses today don't appear to comb their hair, and what about older ladies that die grey hair? I don't agree to multi coloured hair or visible body piercings, but them I am old fashioned oin the days when wore proper uniforms and caps, and haven help us if we stepped out of line!

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  • The comments made by the cashier are linked - at least in part - to the cashier's own experience, both in that shop and in fast-food; both of which involve serving or seeing the public. Perhaps, the conservatism that other people have to endure within the work-setting might be worth a thought. Rules may be reasonable or petty, but lots of people may have less freedom to express their feelings because of employer-power. Spare a thought for the cashiers and fast-food employees as well. They might love a different hairdo if freedom permitted it.

    Hair colour doesn't bother me, but if you talk above a whisper in the library, the rainbow hair won't save you. I'm at my wits-end with that issue. [Been to the library today, so I'm feeling sensitive at the moment.]

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  • I have never read such closed minded opinions in my life - people are people and we have the right to be who we want to be and express our own feelings and also style.

    I have numerous tattoos and it has never interferred with me being able to perform my duty to the best of my ability or my professionalism- times have changed people.

    Accept it!- and as for the quotes of people being unprofessional it is ridiculous!!

    I find that nursing should reflect the times and it is the people who perform their duty tirelessly are persecuted because they want to look differently is nothing more than discrimination.

    Grow up and accept that people have changed- and i therefore question if that is how you feel about fellow colleagues if you have the same perception about the people who we carefore who have coloured hair, tattoos and piercings or is it just a case of double standards!!!

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  • Oh for heaven's sake! Let's remember that this discussion has arisen as a result of a remark made by somebody who wasn't even a nurse - and who, in my opinion, was very ill-mannered even to say what she said to her customer.
    Times change. I remember a nurse being sent home because she had had a Number One haircut - forty years ago. Now, nobody thinks twice (or they shouldn't) about 'extreme' hairstyles.
    We will never change the pereceptions of the general public if we don't let them witness nurses, in all their diversity, delivering care equally well and unaffected by their appearance. I concede that piercings can pose a safety risk in certain circumstances and I would expect a nurse in that situation to recognise that. Tattoos are not everybody's choice, but they don't have an effect on how well we care for a patient. They should not have to be covered up (unless obscene or offensive). I accept that facial or neck tattoos may give the wrong impression - but it's very unlikely that somebody with that kind of a tattoo will choose a profession as regulated as nursing; and if he/she is already a nurse, is unlikely to get one. Unless of course he/she is Maori, in which case facial tattooing is culturally acceptable.
    As for the hair....! People in need of nursing usually need a bit of cheering up, and coloured hair is fun. Anonymous 28 July 10.48 pm - I couldn't quite work out whether you are in favour of or against 'older' ladies dyeing their hair. I don't comb mine, either, because of the style. We don't all go in for the Margaret Thatcher look.

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  • I assumed when I read the title of the report that that it was her employers that criticised her but was it only the cashier in the local shop? Storm in a tea cup if that's the case

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