In the 1960s and 70s Palmolive ran a series of tv ads warning men that body odour could hurt their career prospects. "Don’t wait to be told", said the jingle. And the reason was obvious — it’s awkward to talk to someone about how they smell. But body odour isn’t the only aspect of personal presentation that’s caught up in awkwardness. Career success can also depend on a person’s accent, body shape and complexion. And policy makers are surprisingly reluctant to talk about employers’ growing preoccupation with ‘aesthetic labour’.
An increasing share of entry level jobs are in service industries. And with much of their workforce on display to the public, service employers often treat their workers’ appearance as part of the product. They have strong preferences about how workers look and speak. Researchers now refer to things like grooming, dress-sense, body size, accent and tone of voice as ‘aesthetic skills‘.
Many of those in the policy community are also reluctant to confront the widespread use of appearance in hiring decisions. After all, how people look and speak is tied up with their ethnicity, class background and identity — it’s part of who they are. To insist that a job seeker must learn how to present as a different kind of person can seem discriminatory and offensive. But persuading employers to stop using appearance in decisions about hiring and promotion seems impossible. As a result, it’s easier to avoid the issue.
Much of the debate in policy circles revolves around the less fraught issues of formal education and training in technical skills. However, a group of researchers in Scotland have challenged the emphasis on this kind of knowledge and skill. In a 2003 paper Dennis Nickson, Chris Warhust, Anne Marie Cullen and Allan Watt argued that employment services for the long-term unemployed should place more emphasis on ‘aesthetic skills’ in order to move job seekers into the emerging ‘style labour market’. According to their research, service industry employers place surprisingly little emphasis on technical skills.
‘Aesthetic skills’ are about more than innate physical attractiveness and grooming. They include body language and speech — things like facial expression, shoulder shrugging, hair flicking, vocabulary and pronunciation. As the researchers put it, it’s about "looking good and sounding right". Unsurprisingly, what’s ‘good’ and ‘right’ tends to come more naturally to people who are white and middle-class.
In a memo to the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment, Chris Warhurst and his colleagues wrote:
In many respects it was in the area of recruitment and selection that the notion of aesthetic labour had the most resonance, as this process allows for the filtering out of "inappropriate" people. The review of job advertisements in the Glasgow newspapers revealed that employers were using a variety of strategies to signal the type of people they would wish to employ. A number of key phrases occurred with great regularity in job adverts encompassing the leisure and retail sectors. Examples, of these phrases include, "smart young person", "smart appearance", "well spoken and of smart appearance" and "very well presented". Furthermore a significant number of adverts asked applicants to enclose a photograph with their application. This practice is something that is strongly countenanced against by the Employment Service, due to possible discriminatory practices. Organisations were looking for the "right" sort of appearance and disposition, the latter often being more important than any technical skills. For example, the personnel manage of a design-led hotel, in discussing the recruitment of staff for a new café within the hotel, commented that: "we didn’t actually look for people with experience . . . because we felt that wasn’t particularly important. We wanted people that had a personality more than the skills because we felt we could train people to do the job". Allied to this was the way that a certain type of image was portrayed in their recruitment material. The advert for these positions, which interestingly was placed in the Sunday Times, contained a picture of a physically attractive young women (in reality a model) who was felt to embody the desired iconography of the company and its "ideal" worker.
This quote hints at the care employers need to take to avoid running foul of anti-discrimination laws — a problem more severe in some jurisdictions than others. In California, fitness instructor Jennifer Portnick filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission when Jazzercise turned down her application for a franchise because they considered her too fat.
"Jazzercise sells fitness," wrote Maureen Brown, director of franchise programs and services. "Consequently, a Jazzercise applicant must have a higher muscle-to-fat ratio and look leaner than the public." But Portnick insists that being large is just part of who she is: "I work out six days a week. I’ve weighed close to what I weigh now for most of my adult life. This is the body I have." Clearly Portnick does not regard her size as a ‘skill’.
Stanford Law professor Deborah Rhode argues that employers’ emphasis on appearance can lead to unfair discrimination. In the Washington Post she writes:
Appearance-related bias … exacerbates disadvantages based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and class. Prevailing beauty standards penalize people who lack the time and money to invest in their appearance. And weight discrimination, in particular, imposes special costs on people who live in communities with shortages of healthy food options and exercise facilities.
Rhode favours tougher anti-discrimination laws. She points out that while beauty is supposed to be in the eye of the beholder, there’s a remarkable level of agreement about what’s attractive and what isn’t. And while customers might prefer to be served by someone they find more attractive Rhode insists that "customer preferences should not be a defense for prejudice".
Sometimes conforming to employer and customer expectations of beauty involves more than changes in behaviour. Some commentators argue that the increase in cosmetic surgery is partly a response to the demands of the workplace. When US legislators proposed a tax on cosmetic surgery, the National Organization for Women came out against it arguing that it was a tax on middle aged women trying to maintain their earning power.
But as it turns out, beauty doesn’t always help women get ahead in the labour market. While an attractive, feminine appearance is an advantage in low-paid customer service jobs it is not always an advantage for higher paid, male dominated occupations. According to Ken Podratz of Rice University, people generally act as if what is beautiful is also good. But there may also be a "beauty is beastly" effect in some circumstances. In a study of the effect of attractiveness on hiring decisions (pdf) he found:
Female raters, but not male raters, were less likely to hire attractive women for jobs that were viewed as more male-oriented. But for jobs in which physical appearance was considered low in importance, both male and female raters were less likely to label attractive women as suitable for hire.
The advantages and disadvantages of attractiveness reveal some awkward truths about how customers, co-workers and employers think and feel about gender, ethnicity and class. Prejudice and discrimination hang like a bad smell around the whole idea of ‘aesthetic skill’.
Note: Thanks to Troppo commentor Anthony for telling me about the literature on aesthetic labour.
Update 1. — ‘Food deserts’
A couple of commenters have drawn attention to Deborah Rhode’s claims about weight discrimination. Rhode argues that "weight discrimination … imposes special costs on people who live in communities with shortages of healthy food options and exercise facilities."
Obesity is associated with low socioeconomic status. One hypothesis is that it’s harder to find healthy and affordable food in many low income neighbourhoods. As the Independent’s Jeremy Laurance reported in 1997, these neighbourhoods are sometimes called ‘food deserts’:
Food deserts, the minister of public health was told at a private seminar in London, are those areas of inner cities where cheap, nutritious food is virtually unobtainable. Car-less residents, unable to reach out-of- town supermarkets, depend on the corner shop where prices are high, products are processed and fresh fruit and vegetables poor or non-existent.
While initially popular with policy makers, the idea of food deserts has been disputed. Writing in the British Medical Journal, Steven Cummins and Sally Macintyre labeled food deserts a factoid. In a later paper Macintyre went on to claim that "More extensive empirical investigations of food deserts in the UK have since found very little evidence that areas with large proportions of deprived residents are poorly served by retail food stores."
In Australia, Elizabeth Winkler completed a PhD thesis on socioeconomic differences in fruit and vegetable purchasing in Brisbane. She reported that "findings from the secondary analysis of the Brisbane Food Study provided little evidence that the food retail environment contributed to socioeconomic differences in fruit and vegetable purchasing".
Update 2 — Adam Smith on the folly of imitating the rich
Nicholas Gruen’s appearance in the comments thread reminded me of Adam Smith’s disdain for the fashion-conscious elites of his day (Smith’s work is one of Nicholas’ favourite subjects). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith wrote:
It is from our disposition to admire, and consequently to imitate, the rich and the great, that they are enabled to set, or to lead what is called the fashion. Their dress is the fashionable dress; the language of their conversation, the fashionable style; their air and deportment, the fashionable behaviour.
In Smith’s view, the courts of princes and the drawing-rooms of the great were filled with ignorant and foolish people who cared more about fashion than genuine virtue.
Update 3: Jarryd continues the conversation at Dysfunctional by Design. He asks "Can ‘professional appearance’ remain an understandable criterion within the reach of most individuals? Or will it lead to lead to a culture of conformity and superficial discrimination?"