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‘Keeping up Appearances’ – The Discussion of Aesthetic Labour among Flight Attendants

‘Keeping up Appearances’ – The Discussion of Aesthetic Labour among Flight Attendants
Author: Victoria Stevens
2 Commentries
Abstract: Flight attendants to an extent are required to look a certain way, this subject has caught the attention of many academics. The following paper will discuss the positive and negative aspects of aesthetic labour among cabin crew, identifying the reasons for these appearance expectations and the impacts.

Keywords – Flight Attendants, Cabin Crew, Aesthetic Labour, Appearance Requirements, Dress Code, Airline Industry

This conference paper discusses the positive and negative issues towards aesthetic labour in the airline industry, paying particular attention to cabin crew. Though it may seem that there has been more discussion surrounding the negative aspects than the positive aspects this topic is particularly controversial. The concept started when job advertisements specified appearance requirements, now it seems airlines require a certain type of person or look for the role of cabin crew. Usually this is attractive females as this is the expectation of customers, airlines want to have a competitive advantage and therefore use cabin crew as an eye for advertisements. However, this has caused issues in the past for example Ryanair and its ‘sexy ad’. The way women were portrayed in the ad is considered sexism, however arguments were highlighted that crew were aware of this. This paper also highlights the positive arguments regarding aesthetic labour as a good business strategy, high grooming standards and an attractive appearance from staff are likely to bring in more customers. Discrimination was mentioned by many articles regarding ‘overweight’ and ‘unattractive’ people being rejected for service jobs and the rejection of males. Airlines for example Southwest Airlines are guilty of this in the past by only hiring attractive females and enforcing ‘sexualised outfits’; this is usually the cause for sexual harassment in the workplace due to provocative and suggestive clothing requirements. However, it is argued that this is due to a competitive advantage within the airline industry and the customer expectation of cabin crew being young and attractive females in particular.

Cabin crew requirements are strict mainly due to the reputation of the airline, women are expected the wear skirts, high heels, makeup and sometimes barrettes. Men on the other hand are expected to wear ties, trousers and keep beards shaved. It is expressed by many academics that even the slightest drop in standards can cause termination of employment for example weight gain or even ache. Crew are expected to keep up with standards and look after their appearances for example skin care regimes, dieting, manicures, makeup and hairstyles. This conference paper also discusses the issues regarding effort between males and females, it is suggested that females have stricter requirements than men as they are not required to wear makeup or high heels. However, this concept still boils down to customer expectations and the company image; it is the expectation of society which is the reason for the no tattoo policy as many deem tattoos ‘unprofessional’, an incident with British Airways shows airlines are not willing to ‘get with the times’. Once again academics argue that these expectations are good for business as this is attractive, customers care about the appearance of staff due to the level of interaction on a daily basis and if the staff do not keep up with hygiene and appearances this maybe discouraging. Overall, the issue lies with customer expectations of how cabin crew should look and the airlines reputation.

Depending on how strict the dress code is may have a deeper impact on cabin crew especially if health and safety is at risk; health and safety regarding the uniform worn by flight attendants is discussed by many academics, the safety of footwear and high heels are deemed to cause health issues in the future for example foot, leg and back problems. Trousers have been accepted recently by British Airways as a sign gender equality and protection for crew, trousers will protect and comfort crew on long-haul flights, weather conditions and even the Zika virus. The clothing needs to provide a certain level of protection for crew members in a crisis situation as the crew have the responsibility of helping passengers, therefore, heels are likely to be argued as inadequate footwear. Many people may disagree with these changes due to lack of research surrounding the problems with such clothing, however, it was not apparent till further research that uniform or aesthetics are important to the health and safety of the crew, not only physically but mentally. Academics have argued the issues regarding mental health and aesthetic labour, the link is evident. Appearance requirements place extra stress on staff causing possible mental health issues in the future for example anxiety, strain and depression. Flight attendants spending extra time and money on fulfilling these requirements are likely to cause financial worries and lack of sleep which are unhealthy for any worker. Although this is oblivious to many people that flight attendants have suffered from these issues due to a long-term persistence, airlines have the ability to change and improve the dress code standards to decrease the chances for future crew. However, due to customer expectations and corporate image, this is very unlikely.

Bartlett, K.T. (1994) Only Girls Wear Barrettes: Dress and Appearance Standards, Community Norms and Workplace Equality. Michigan Law Review, 92 (8) 2541-2582.

Tsaur, S. and Tang, W. (2013) the Burden of Esthetic Labour on Front-Line Employees in Hospitality Industry. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 35 19-27.

Warhurst, C. and Nickson, D. (2007) Employee Experience of Aesthetic Labour in Retail and Hospitality. Work, Employment and Society, 21 (1) 103-120.
commentry 233333
Author: Danielle Bristow
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A reflection of the discussion paper on- "The discussion of aesthetic labour among flight attendants"
Author: Naomi Chin
I have chosen to comment on this paper due to a common interest of the topic as I have studied an NCFE cabin crew course and have interviewed a female cabin crew on the similar topic, therefore, I have some basic knowledge of the cabin crew workplace which might be useful to reflect on this paper.

Similar to what I have mentioned in my discussion paper, as customer satisfaction directly impact on customer loyalty and airlines’ competitive advantage, this paper has pointed out airlines have used the appearance of cabin crew as a strategy to satisfy customer expectation. Additionally, an interview I have conducted with a female cabin crew has stated when she applied for the job, although the company did not request, she has attached her profile picture on her CV and she believed this might be one of the reasons she has passed the CV scanning process therefore, agree with the author, I believe aesthetic labour is inseparable to cabin crew.

Moreover, the author has discovered broad research on aesthetic labour and shows reasonable arguments between the positive and the negative impact of aesthetic labour. As literatures on aesthetic labour were mainly focused on the appearance of cabin crew (Pounders et al, 2015; Whitelegg, 2002), it is good to see this paper has specified how dress code increase negative impact on cabin crew well being and increase risk of cabin crew health and safety. The author also demonstrated there is a linkage between aesthetic labour and well being, agree with this point, compare to other emotional works such as teachers and nurses, cabin crew are likely to smoke and drink alcohol at least once a week and reported worse symptoms of stress and gastrointestinal (Gunnarsdottir et al, 2006).

Finally, the author concluded this paper by suggesting airlines to make some changes in dress code standard to protect crew members but with a hopeless view of the changes. In my opinion, as this paper has mentioned British Airways, the largest airlines in the United Kingdom, has started its first step allowed female crew members wearing trousers, which means the issues of dress code has been concerned, therefore, more changes might possible to happen in the future. In general, the author viewed aesthetic labour only benefit airlines operations, but increase negative impact to cabin crew, however the information in this paper was based on secondary research, for further improvement, the author could combine primary research to identify if aesthetic labour has any positive implication such as improve self management or improve self confidence for cabin crew to expand the discussion.


Gunnarsdottir, H.K., Sveinsdottir, H., Bernburg, J.G., Fridriksdottir, H. and Tomasson, K. (2006) Lifestyle, harassment at work and self-assessed health of female flight attendants, nurses and teachers. Work, 27(2) 165-172.

Pounders, K.R., Babin, B.J. and Close, A.G. (2015) All the same to me: outcomes of aesthetic labor performed by frontline service providers. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 43(6) 670-693.

Whitelegg, D. (2012) Cabin pressure: The dialectics of emotional labour in the airline industry. The Journal of Transport History, 23(1) 73-86.