Fly Me: It’s 2017, so why are flight attendants still being sexualized?
I’m a flight attendant. My job is to make sure passengers get from point A to point B as safely as possible, which is why I’ve been trained to handle any number of emergency situations, the kind that airlines don’t want you to think about when you’re in the air. This is why airlines create silly safety videos starring Mr. Bean or a squad of bikini-clad Sports Illustrated models. Airlines want to make you forget why I’m here, really here.
Maybe it’s because of my job that I see things most people don’t see. Take “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” When I saw it last year, I became fixated on Rey’s long flowing vest. She wore it belted at the waist. It was pretty, maybe a little too pretty for someone who kicks ass swinging a light saber. What if it got stuck under a Storm Trooper’s boot? What if Kylo Ren wrapped it around her neck?
I applauded when Rey ditched the flowing vest in the last five minutes of the film. It just so happened to coincide when she became an official Jedi.
“Young girls can look at her and know that they can wear trousers if they want to,” Daisy Ridley, the actress who played Rey, told Elle in 2015. “That they don’t have to show off their bodies.”
Why am I talking about pants? Because some people have very strong feelings about flight attendants who wear them. In a magazine I read years ago, a bigwig working for an international Asian carrier was quoted stating, “Passengers wouldn’t dare yell at a flight attendant wearing a dress.” (Actually, they would, but that’s another matter.)
Asiana told the Seattle Times that its skirts-only policy was meant to emphasize the company’s brand of “high-class Korean beauty.”
“Aesthetic elements such as the appearance of female flight attendants are part of its service for passengers and an essential tool for staying competitive.”
When Asiana Flight 214 crash landed in San Francisco, photos surfaced of a petite Asiana flight attendant giving passengers piggyback rides to safety. I wonder if any of the passengers she carried had strong feelings about whether she wore pants or a skirt? What about eyeglasses? I ask because in 2013 Asiana’s female flight attendants fought for the right to wear pants (and eyeglasses), and actually won. Of course male flight attendants didn’t have to join the fight since they could always wear glasses.
Yet it seems the historically sexist industry still has strong feelings about how some flight attendants should look. Female cabin crew with British Airways Mixed Fleet finally won the right to wear trousers about a year ago — after a two-year dispute. Actually, they won the right to request to wear trousers. The right to ask their manager if it’s okay to wear them; God forbid they just put them on.
Virgin Atlantic, likewise, reviews requests to wear trousers on a case-by-case basis, with skirts the norm.
At Etihad, in 2015, the opposite occurred when the second largest carrier in the UAE took away uniform pants as an option for female crew members.
Ryanair has yet to make trousers available, although since last year its female crew are no longer encouraged to pose in bikinis for an annual calendar, so that’s something.
Then there are airlines like VietJet who skip the bikinis and go straight for lingerie-clad models in ads to promote business. Nothing says let me help with your seat belt (wink wink) quite like women posing in the aisle wearing nothing but a pair of panties and a bra with red thigh-highs and heels.
Then there’s the issue of age. At airlines like Emirates and Qatar, rarely anyone gets hired over the age of 30. Those who do are offered contracts that often don’t get renewed. Meanwhile pilots, most of whom are male, aren’t subjected to the same age and weight limitations.
You know what else male pilots don’t have to do? Take pregnancy tests before they get hired. Iberia Airlines was recently fined for requiring flight attendants to take pregnancy tests before they’re hired.
Iberia isn’t alone. The CEO for Qatar Airways Akbar Al Baker recently bragged that the average age of his cabin crew was 26. Then he made fun of U.S. airlines by reminding people that passengers on American Airlines were being served by grandmothers. The room erupted in laughter. I wasn’t surprised by Al Baker’s comment, I know how he feels about women and human rights, but hearing laughter from international reporters covering the event was disappointing.
Qatar doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to women. In 2015, it announced it would no longer fire women for getting married or pregnant within the first five years of employment. There isn’t any maternity or paternity leave at Qatar. An earlier contract said women must notify the airline as soon as they know they are pregnant and Qatar would then be free to terminate the contract. Failure to admit pregnancy or attempts to conceal it would be a breach of contract.
The current contract has improved a little. It maintains the airline’s right to terminate pregnant women’s contracts, but says they can apply for ground positions if available. That’s a big IF. According to The Guardian in 2015, 80 percent of Qatar Airways cabin crew are women.
THIS is how they keep cabin crew young. This is why Qatar can brag about the average age of crew and poke fun at American carriers. Because in America we have the same human rights as passengers. Thank God for that.
What’s behind this blatant and pervasive sexism? My guess is that it has to do with keeping the sexual coffee-tea-or-me fantasy alive — as dictated by mostly male executives who run these airlines.
Melanie Brewster, an assistant professor of psychology and the co-founder of the Sexuality, Women, & Gender Project at Columbia, told Yahoo earlier this year that flight attendant uniforms were an example of “a long history of women having to ‘suck up’ pain and discomfort in order to adhere to unrealistic cultural norms.”
“Women who are in historically sexualized occupations (i.e., flight attendants, hostesses, waitresses, fashion models) are some of the easiest to objectify because their jobs put them on display for consumption,” Brewster said.
Maybe that explains why once when I was tweeting about fatigue and the short, 8-hour layovers my airline forces us to endure, a complete stranger suggested I spent too much time shopping for shoes on my layovers.
When men write about fatigue do you think people assume they’re really tired because they were shopping for shoes? I doubt it. When you have what looks like a fun-time sexy job, people don’t think twice about making disrespectful comments. Even women make sexist remarks.
That or they tell you to quit. That’s what one aviation blogger told me to do because I didn’t seem happy. Because I didn’t tweet happy things anymore. Unfortunately I have a lot of important things to write about. Take my uniform, for instance. For almost a year now, I’ve been tweeting a lot of “unhappy things” about the new uniforms that American Airlines introduced last year for crew members.
Toxic chemicals in the new uniform made me sick. It also sickened 5,000 of my co-workers, just like a similar uniform sickened flight attendants at Alaska Airlines several years ago.
The media has barely reported it. I’ll be tweeting about the uniform and get private messages from journalists at big news sites asking me questions about why we have ash trays on nonsmoking flights. That or magazines are looking for my Top-10 makeup tips or packing tricks. About six months into the uniform crisis, I started to get angry. One day I tweeted something about the media being sexist. A reporter sent me a message saying he had tried to write about the uniform crisis, but his colleagues chalked it up to “just a bunch of women moaning.”
Never mind the fact that it’s not only women flight attendants who have been affected by this. It’s rampers and pilots and agents and every work group that must wear the uniform. But you wouldn’t know that based on what most of the journalists who have covered our story have written. In 2011 Jezebel wrote about Virgin America flight attendants who were suffering reactions from their new uniforms. The headline read: New Sexy Uniforms Give Flight Attendants Sexy Rash. Have you ever seen a sexy rash? Me neither. Which is why I bashed the media for being sexist in an article I wrote that focused on my uniform and how it’s affecting my health.
Over 5,000 people at American Airlines are experiencing all kind of symptoms from toxic chemicals that are in the uniform. The uniform has been treated with chemicals to make it durable. If removing a single olive from every salad saved my airline $40,000 a year, imagine how much they’d save if they didn’t have to issue replacement skirts at their cost.
Meanwhile Doug Parker, our CEO, continues to remind the news media how much everyone likes the way the uniform looks, even though 1 out of 10 flight attendants are suffering, even as that number continues to rise. Name another CEO who can get away with making people sick by focusing on looks over health?
These chemicals do make the uniform look good, I’ll give him that. The same chemicals that make it possible to wash a uniform in a hotel sink and still look great has caused many of my coworkers to have bloody noses, eye infections that don’t respond to antibiotics, flu-like symptoms and sky-high heart rates. It messed with my thyroid function. It’s affecting many flight attendants’ menstrual cycles.
I’ve seen rashes that look more like chemical burns. I don’t care how hot you might be, nobody looks good when it looks like someone threw acid on your face. But you won’t read any of that anywhere because, well, it doesn’t follow the sexy script the media likes to report. A few sites that HAVE covered what’s going on did an excellent job at sexualizing a health crisis. For the record, I’ve never called my uniform sexy, but you probably wouldn’t know that based on some of the headlines.
“In many professions where a uniform is required, as is the case for the flight crews of commercial airlines, these clothing choices reflect a “tacit expectation … either look ‘sexy’ at work, or find another job,” Brewster told Yahoo.
Funny. That’s exactly where I’m at now. Wear a uniform that makes me sick or find another job.
I love my job, and I’m good at it. But it’s trying to work in an industry where my appearance is prioritized — even to the point of making me sick. What’s just as bad as that is nobody cares. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because I’m just a flight attendant, a flight attendant over the age of 26 who is married and also a mother. By the way I wear eyeglasses at night. I prefer pants on my days off. No wonder the media is silent.
Will the Force ever awaken? Like, for more than five minutes?