Aesthetic labour. An industry so prominent in multiple regions of the world, it fails to be noticed on the grand scale it exists on. An industry built on the physical appearance of an employee, as it is integral to their job performance (Karlsson, 2012). Often, this concept is put to practice when an individual is hired for what is known as ‘beauty capital' and their willingness to receive the appropriate training in order to meet company standards (Warhurst & Nickson, 2007). This industry is still widespread amongst the goliaths of business and lifestyle branding, as people's jobs can be reliant on their physical appearance (Chiu & Babcock, 2002), and often the possible advancement of their careers (Pettinger, 2004). This concept that first made an appearance on a newspaper advertisement seeking ‘smart appearing, outgoing, and trendy' people (Warhurst & Nickson, 2001) has been widely criticized, exercised, and banned by certain regions of the world, with the inclusion of the United Arab Emirates. However, even with the existence of regulations put in place to minimize the effects of this well-practiced concept, it still appears that certain companies choose to ignore them. Starting with dress-codes in the 1910s, and training for personal grooming (Benson, 1978) which helped theorize a concept that has evolved into the secret standard of employment in modern age society. In this paper we will be discussing the impact of aesthetic labor and its prominence in companies that hold an iron fist on the world with the sheer exposure they've obtained over the years. However, it doesn't end here. Aesthetic labor isn't contained by designer walls in clothing companies and companies promoting a product, but also to the navy troops serving in China. (BBC News, 2006) mentions that members applying to serve on the Chinese navy are required to be tall, good-looking, and polite, as they portray the image of the country as they sail through international waters, and must sell a good image of the country upon arrival to their foreign destinations. This practice not only restricted on land and water, can be found on the websites of popular airlines such as Emirates, who's height requirements are blatantly displayed on the front cover.
‘Lookism' is a major part of aesthetic labor. It is the concept of discrimination against an individual or group based on physical appearance, which brings forward aesthetic labor complementing emotional labor (Witz et al, 2003). It is argued that this practice mainly affects women, and rarely men (Hochschild, 1983) though it's started to become more frequent for both genders to endure the practice of ‘lookism'. As demonstrated in hospitality management, and hotels, where employees' aesthetics have become part of the service provided (Kotler et al, 2006). This common practice is used to bring ease to the costumer, and ensure their use of the service again (Warhurst and Nickson, 2009). The same can be said of higher end restaurants and establishments which implement ‘lookism' in their hiring in order to secure regular customers rather than one-time comers. According to Hochschild, the standard put in place by companies differ from ‘friendly looking' to ‘sophisticated' based on the targeted market (Hochschild, 1983). Lookism has also been suggested to be the next battleground for employee discrimination (Ayto, 1999). Sight being the dominant sense, and easiest sense to manipulate in the western world (Williams, 1990), this concept potentially opening the door to multiple employee lawsuits if handled poorly. As these employees are often hired due to the possibility of them looking more ‘attractive' to customers, such as Virginia Airlines which was reported to promote such marketing strategies (ABC, 2006. Devine, 2004). The standard of the requirements evolving with time, as it once was ‘white, thin, and blonde' (Jones, 2010). Pushing non-western individuals to aspire to achieve those presumably desirable features. However, countries such as the United Arab Emirates have put in place laws against possible discrimination associated with aesthetic labour that go as the following "Any person, who establishes, sets up, organises or manages an association, centre, entity, organisation, league or group or any branch thereof or uses any other means aiming to offend religions, or provoke discrimination or hate speech or any act involving encouragement or promotion of the same shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a period not less than ten years“. Eliminating possible prejudice in the workplace, or discrimination that is still prominent in several other regions of the world.
Hochschild's (1983) study on emotional labour was one of the very first that dominated the concept of interactive service. Since then, several scholars have revisited Hochschild's earlier thesis, but most prominent is the work by Bolton (Bolton & Boyd, 2003; Bolton, 2005). His study, which was consistent with insight on workplace emotions and the emotions required at the work place. However, it was found that, some of the softer skills that are now required in certain areas have always existed. To further elaborate, a study noted American call centres attempt to train employees with undesirable accents to speak in more ‘presentable' manners, corresponding to the standards of the company (Warhurst & Nickson, 2009). In same likeness, several studies have been carried out to reveal the interests of an employer in aesthetic skills. And the likelihood of them implementing such aesthetic based marketing strategies to boost the company's annual revenue, and place them at a higher place than similar counterparts that do not implement such systems.
Used intentionally as a form of competitive advantage, employers mobilize and develop the attributes and capabilities of employees through a process of recruitment, selection and training. Constantly reconstructing them as “skills” with the intention of creating a form of service encounter appealing to their customers, whether that is done visually (on the bases of looks and appearance) or aurally (accents, voice and tone) for commercial benefit (Warhurst & Nickson, 2007). Commercial benefit raises the idea that in aesthetic labour, employees contribute in creating a specific brand image through what is known as ‘living the brand'. This in turn, is likely to enhance initial and repeated visit patronization of customers therefore, an effective tool for marketing (Karlsson, 2012). Also, promoting that certain brands come with lifestyles that be should aimed for (Pettinger, 2004). For instance, brands like Prada use aesthetic labour to promote “young, hot, and luxurious”, extending the lifestyle being promoted to their employees, as one of their managers was reported to have said to terminate those working in offices that did not meet the standard of the brand physically. Thus, the employees are required to groom and present themselves in a fashion that promotes this image. It is unreasonable to have someone who's appearance or ‘aesthetics' provides a conflicting image of the brand. In essence, if Prada ran bigger sizes with their models, they would lose the exclusivity they have currently, making the brand more attainable to a wider public which in turn, ruins the image they're trying to promote. Very much like keeping employees that do not successfully uphold the brand's high aesthetic standards, which in turn shows a lack of consistency in the lifestyle they are trying to portray as the right one for Prada.
Additionally, this promotes the ability for these organizations to price their packaged products or rather lifestyles as they dim fit (Chioveanu, 2008; Pettinger, 2004). To the advantage of organizations that use aesthetic labour as leverage for their products, individuals tend to buy into social hierarchical norms. Brands paint the image that it is their product that elevates your lifestyle, rather than the person itself elevating the product. Customers are likely to patronize, holding on to that notion. This gives an opportunity to set high price margins. A few examples of such brands include; Gucci, Mac Cosmetics, and even a non-commodity brand like Apple. Which promote excellent lifestyles elevated by top of the line products that are set at a standard that cannot presumably be met by their competitors, granting them exclusivity over the ‘lifestyles' they are promoting.
Personal aesthetics has been argued to exist for several years and was argued not to be a recent development in business industries (Nickson, et al., 2003). Starting in the 1930s, with air hostesses who were expected to look, hold themselves and behave in a certain manner with reference to grooming and mannerism (Taylor & Tyler, 2000). With supporting evidence in several airlines including, the world-famous Emirates airline, we can see several ridiculous ‘skill' requirements that is expected of applicants in the aim of creating the picture-perfect hostess (Emirates Group Careers, 2017; Ren, 2017), the same cannot be said for the standards the pilots must abide by. The question at hand is whether the use of personal aesthetics has taken a step too far, neglecting the possible negative impacts it might have on both prospective and current employees, possibly making them believe they are less secure in their positions at the company, instating the fear of termination due to aesthetics in both. To begin with, discrimination can be a major problem within an organization that places emphasis on aesthetic skills. The majority of organisations in the service sector have a precise measure for recruitment (Warhurst & Nickson, 2001; Nickson, et al., 2003). Thus, employees who do not meet the assigned ‘aesthetic standards' will automatically be rejected during the very selective process of recruitment.
This bases for recruitment breach the basic employment practice (Adamitis, 2000). For instance, recruiting on the bases of preferred personal grooming and accent, commonly due to the social hierarchical class, culture or educational level of the prospective employee (Nickson, et al., 2004) is not an adequate criterion to determine who it is that have the needed qualifications for the job. This was further emphasized by Adkins (1985), the idea that preferred dispositions are not equally distributed, and the right aesthetic is generally considered to be middle class, conventionally gendered and typically white (Williams & Connell, 2010). Discrimination may arise within the working environment. As shown in the interview regarding a case with a manager at a UK telecom company, Louise, whose career opportunities were severely restricted by her weight. “I joined a new company and was very overweight, wearing a size 24. I was very good at my job but found it difficult just to get invites to meetings, let alone extra work opportunities on projects. I wasn't meeting customers; I was very much hidden in the background” (Zee, 2017). Such commodification of aesthetic skills can be disadvantageous to employee productivity and performance.
Additionally, social exclusion may be prominent amongst prospective employees. This is usually facilitated by factors like discrimination and unemployment, resulting in a decline in application from prospective workers due to the aesthetical requirements despite having the required abilities, and set of skills for the job (Nickson, et al., 2003). Also, the need for employers to exploit, objectify and remould employees to be more appealing to customers may encourage harassment cases as well as extreme emotional labour (Dijk & Brown, 2006). For example, unwanted sexual behaviour from customers may be common with employees ordered to wear specific clothing, thereby endangering their emotional and psychological states. These deep sited emotional dispositions that affect the individual's everyday life could lead to low self-esteem and several other psychological problems (Bourdieu, 1984). A majority of employers have taken aesthetic appeal to a morally wrong level. The study of ‘Bazooms' shows an example of employees being required to sign a sexual harassment policy which placed them at the losing end of the deal (Warhurst & Nickson, 2009).
Overall, this essay is skewed on aesthetic labour in markets that are willing to offer more to those feeding into what is considered ‘society's norm' or rather standard of existence that should be aimed towards. It is important that the diversity of this concept is understood. Its branches extending further than retail, and its aesthetics incorporating more than just physical appearance. There have been cases documented to have affected individuals like Riam Dean, who was supposedly hidden away in the store backrooms at an Abercrombie and Fitch upon her manager discovering that she had been hired, although she didn't fit ‘the American look' the company seeks, by possessing a prosthetic arm (Pidd, 2009). And Joanne Harris who had been ‘encouraged' by her manager to continue losing weight (Butler, 2015) receiving praise which pushed her into the abuse of diet pills, and illegal substances to maintain what was required of her. Demonstrating the destructive nature of appearance-based evaluations (Dean, 2005). This concept covering all bases, from physical appearance, clothing, grooming, accents, and even the use of speech patterns deemed ‘undesirable', often fails to be monitored thoroughly, however, still generating the preferred annual revenue upon the portrayal of the desired image for companies putting it into practice. The standards of what an individual should look like have been implemented into society almost assuring the success of these companies and their rather diverse ways of utilizing this aesthetic based strategy, in order to gain an advantage over competitors promoting similar products, and lifestyles. As attractiveness has now become a factor for success, with higher pay, and better conditions offered to the more desirable aesthetically (Harper, 2000). It becomes almost easy to associate happiness with the standard of attractiveness, almost making them seem interchangeable. Pushing modern day employees to incredible, and in rare cases unrealistic lengths to fulfil the requirements placed upon them often not as subtly as we would like to believe. The outcome of that, making or breaking these organizations' lifestyles, products, and images they are presenting before the public eye, and their target audiences.
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