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Properly Attired, Hired, or Fired: Aesthetic Labor and Social Inequality

  • Author(s): Elmen-Gruys, Kjerstin
  • Advisor(s): Saguy, Abigail C
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality, exploring how workplace demands for "aesthetic labor" reproduce and legitimize workplace discrimination on the bases of gender, race, class, and body size. The term, aesthetic labor, refers to organizational expectations for workers' attractiveness, style, and interactional mannerisms. These expectations - both formal and informal - influence which people will be hired to do what jobs and how people are expected to look and behave at work, a process that favors workers from more privileged backgrounds. I examine this understudied aspect of labor market inequality in three complementary cases studies, each centering on a different phase of a worker's career: during the job search, at the point of hire, and when establishing job security.

Chapter 1 is a participant observation and interview study of a non-profit organization that provides professional clothing and style advice to disadvantaged women entering the workforce. My analyses focus on service interactions between volunteer personal stylists and job seekers. I found that interactions were structured by organizational understandings of deserving versus undeserving poor, through which clients were reputed to be more or less difficult, and more or less deserving.

Chapter 2 draws on the case of female "fit models," i.e., fashion workers with supposedly "perfect measurements" who try on prototype garments during the clothing production process. Because the work of a fit model only requires perfect bodily measurements (at least in theory), this case provides analytic leverage for unteasing the bodily vs. interactional elements of aesthetic labor. I interviewed fit models and their coworkers, and then compared these accounts with information from 77 job advertisements for fit models. I found that, although a fit model's bodily measurements were necessary at the point of hire, her job security ultimately depended on her ability to interact congenially and professionally with colleagues. This illustrates that even in jobs with seemingly exacting aesthetic standards, having the appropriate interactional dispositions, or habitus, can protect workers when their bodily capital diminishes.

Chapter 3 is an ethnographic examination of service interactions in a women's "plus-size" clothing store. This research draws on the unique experiences of plus-sized women to examine how service interactions are shaped by mainstream beauty standards, body-accepting branding, and customers' diverse feelings about body size. Despite branding that promoted prideful appreciation for "real" bodies, the influence of these body-accepting discourses was constrained by women's internalization of mainstream fat stigma. This resulted in an environment characterized by deep ambivalence toward larger body size, allowing hierarchies between women to be reified rather than dissolved.

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