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"Do I look the part?": Assessing the impact of aesthetic labour in the workplace

"Do I look the part?": Assessing the impact of aesthetic labour in the workplace
Author: Michelle Sarana
1 Commentries

Abstract: The service industry - both hospitality, and tourism are responsible in the causes of many work-related stress among employees. This paper wishes to discuss the use of aesthetic labor as a management tool and the impact it has on the workforce, with particular focus on the experiences of women in the industry as it continues to be an under-explored topic.

Keywords: Aesthetic Labour, Service Industry, Tourism and Hospitality, Women, Stress, Burden.

With the immense scale of both tourism and hospitality industry, which heavily relies on the employees to not only serve customers, but also are used as a source of competitive advantage. As such, people in the industry are not only paid by their technical skills, but are expected to perform and provide aesthetic labour. Aesthetic labour has been defined as 'a supply of embodied capacities and attributes possessed by workers at the point of entry into employment' (Warhurst et al., 2000,1). In other words, employers are increasingly in search of workers who can portray the company's image and at the same time appealing to the senses of customer (Pender and Sharpley, 2005)..

The rationale for organizations in using aesthetic labour is that it enables them to provide competitive advantage by offering differentiated service. It has been found that employers are more partial and are developing employees 'who look the part' to provide a company, a distinctive and unique image (Warhurst et al., 2000). Thus, the detrimental entry of aesthetic labour requires the ability of 'sounding right' or 'looking good'. One can easily look at the airline industry in using such aesthetic labour market – from their rigorous uniform standards to the ubiquitous friendly and smiling cabin crew.

Hence, such apparent success created a 'demonstration effects' whereby companies are now all utilising aesthetic labour to pursue such benefits. This is reminiscent of a capitalist society where employees are exploited for profit rather than the tangible product itself and which arguably tourism is very much a part of. The tourism industry is composed and controlled by multinational corporations which has both the power to subject and challenge social issues that plague today's environment. Consequently, the predominant discussion of aesthetic labour as a management tool in tourism literature is an example of the former and largely ignores the voices of employees and the ramification of such technique.

For example, the emphasis on personality and looks has resulted in the form of 'lookism' - a new form of discrimination (Warhurst et al., 2009). As such, Harper (2009) found that employees who perceived to be more attractive have better pay, benefits and job prospects and interestingly is more pronounced in the service industry (Harper 2009). To embody such aesthetic requires employees to look presentable and must combine their bodies and their-self effort to present an attractive appearance. The pressure to meet these aesthetic requirements inevitably leads to employees feeling burdened and stressed.

However, the repercussion of aesthetic labour is more visible to women in the workplace as they are ultimately subjected to the archaic ideology that a woman's appearance and personality is what sells the service. Women are expected to wear makeup and must always look presentable to be gazed upon. Hence, women must invest time, effort and money (beyond regular hours of work) in meeting these enforced aesthetic put in place by the companies, as a result causes anxiety and stress.

Spiess and Waring (2005) supported such argument and found that airhostesses must manage and control their appearance, demeanor and tone of voice in fear of losing their employment (Spiess and Waring, 2005). Women's bodies are essentially commercialized and the nature of the tourism industry being predominantly female workers raises the questions where it continues to subject women to such oppression. Hence, it has been argued that aesthetic labour is a legal justification of the continues sexualization of women in the workplace (Warhurst and Dennis, 2009). A recent petition to the parliament made by a receptionist to ban employers forcing women to wear high heels after being sent home for refusing to do so, provide such example of the archaic policies and objectification of women.

Some might argue that these aesthetic requirements is due to the corporate image and branding of the company however, how can one justify that a two inch high heel will improve such service to a customer or better yet wearing a bright red lipstick will help to raise customer satisfaction. The prevalence of work stress in tourism is considerably higher than other industries, hence it is imperative to investigate every actions made by tourism corporations - as ultimately each actions have consequences. Aesthetic labour as such has been presented as a 'management tool' and focusing mainly on the organizations perspective and thus more investigation needs to be done to challenge and highlight the ramifications of such processes all in the name of 'human resource management tool'.

Reference List

Harper, B. (2000) Beauty, Stature and the Labour Market. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 62 (1) 771–800.Available from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/1468-0084.0620s1771/asset/1468-0084.0620s1771.pdf?v=1&t=j2c4vldk&s=66f745d5a2fa0662594fe087bb551ee6265ed3de {accessed 1 May 2017].

Pender, L. and Sharpley, R. (2005) The Management of Tourism. London: Sage Publications.

Spiess, L. and Waring, P. (2005) Aesthetic labour, cost minimisation and the labour process in the Asia Pacific airline industry. Employee Relations, 27 (2) 193-207. Available from http://emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/01425450510572702 [accessed 4 May 2017].

Warhurst, C., Nickson, D., Witz, A. and Cullen, A.M. (2000) Aesthetic Labour in Interactive Service Work: Some Case Study Evidence from the “New” Glasgow’. Service Industries Journal 20 (3) 1–18. Available from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.lincoln.ac.uk/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=f272a5f8-0869-4340-9b7a-98e69177155f%40sessionmgr4008&vid=1&hid=4213 [accessed 1 May 2017].

Warhurst, C., B. D.V.D., Hall, R. and Nickson, D. (2009) Lookism: The New Frontier of Employment Discrimination? Journal of Industrial Relations, 51 (1) 131-136. Available from http://journals.sagepub.com.proxy.library.lincoln.ac.uk/doi/pdf/10.1177/0022185608096808 [accessed 4 May 2017].

Aesthetic Labour in the workplace: A commentary
Author: Grace Clayton
The choice of paper was easy, as I have wrote a similar paper when discussing how aesthetic labour is employed within the workplace. The paper is well structured with a consistent layout of paragraphs.

The writer has broadly spoken about how this form of labour is used within the hospitality industry, for example they highlight how pressure is upon air hostesses and how they are expected to perform aesthetic labour tremendously by sounding right and looking right. The writer has clearly researched into the recent news tabloids that illustrated a female worker, who was a receptionist and was sent home when she refused to wear heels. The writer should have possibly broadened this point more, by explaining that this certain case had got taken to parliament, and how the female worker who was impacted, is working on bringing in a new law (The Guardian, 2016).

However, this is good of the writer to inform their readers of how this form of labour has been projected within the media. It is also good of the writer to demonstrate how being made to wear red lipstick or heels will not determine the individual's work capabilities. The writer has also read broadly on this topic, when wanting to gain an understanding of how other scholars have demonstrated this form of labour. The writer also highlights how female workers are somewhat, made to work more when needing to sensibly time manage themselves when wanting to gain the ‘right’ look. As the writer specifies that female workers have to invest in time, effort and money and this could consequent to health problems such as sleeping and eating disorders.

It is also good of the writer to highlight how this form of labour is used for competitive advantage and a management tool when hiring attractive individuals. Furthermore, the writer recognises this ‘management tool’ that organisations employ and the writer is correct to point out that this is used for the company’s corporate image. The writer should not have only spoke about the negatives that aesthetic labour can bring, but also the advantages of how it can provide positive economic benefits to the employee and management.

Another example from the hospitality industry could have been used, the popular American bar Hooters, which is growing immensely around the USA and UK. Even though they have been in many court cases about the exploitation of their female staff members, it is said that the staff who work there do enjoy their time working as a barmaid (Warhurst et al. 2000). Finally, comparisons could have been made about how men have a different criteria when it comes to ‘looking right’ (Adkins, 1997).


Adkins, L. (1997) Gendered Work. Buckingham. Open Univ. Press.

Warhurst, C and Nickson, D. (2009) Who’s got the look?’ Emotional, Aesthetic and Sexualized Labour in Interactive Services. Gender, Work and Organisation, 16 (3) 386-403. Available from: http://www.academia.edu/25294941/_Whos_Got_the_Look_Emotional_Aesthetic_and_Sexualized_Labour_in_Interactive_Services Last accessed 9/5/17

The Guardian. (2016). Receptionist 'sent home from PwC for not wearing high heels'. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/may/11/receptionist-sent-home-pwc-not-wearing-high-heels-pwc-nicola-thorp. Last accessed 4/5/17.