Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making a living, makeup and a blurry line.

A study published on October 3, 2011, suggests looking good has benefits. The research, funded by P&G Beauty and Grooming, explored whether looks influence inferences. While reporting on the study, the New York Times explains, “[Wearing makeup] increased people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness, according to a new study, which also confirmed what is obvious: that cosmetics boost a woman’s attractiveness.” Catherine Saint Louis, Up the Career Ladder, Lipstick in Hand, New York Times October 13, 2011, E3 (hereinafter “Lipstick in Hand”). No, doubt everyone has their own opinion on the matter. “I don’t wear makeup, nor do I wish to spend 20 minutes applying it,” said Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University.” Dr. Vickery, who has a Ph.D in chemistry, believes cosmetics “can significantly change how people see you, how smart people think you are on first impression, or how warm and approachable, and that look is completely within a woman’s control . . .” Lipstick in Hand.

Take for example Melanie Stark. Melanie quit her job at Harrods (a very upmarket store in London) after the implementation of a new policy requiring full makeup at all times. Melanie preferred not to wear makeup. In response, Harrods sent her home early some days. Other days they had her work in the stock room. Melanie ultimately quit after tensions rose. It is unclear whether Melanie has filed a law suit or not. What I am most interested in is how people are responding. Understanding how people conceptualize the issue provides insight into where a segment of the general public (online readers) stands on issues of a woman’s autonomy over her body.

The comments on whether a woman should be required to wear makeup and issues of fairness span the spectrum. On one side we have people like Alexia coming to her defense, commenting that “she could have sensitive skin.” Char. People like Char, considers the fairness factor: “It was a new rule that was implemented AFTER she had been working for the company for some time. She did not agree to that when she started the job.” At the other end of the spectrum, we have Parade Keegan, who writes “[e]mployee rules require she wear makeup, that's the end of it. I think she's being silly.”

Lastly, at the far, far, end of the spectrum, we have Liz Jones’ article. Jones takes a strong stance in favor of an employer’s right to require women to wear makeup, and she does not stop there. As the Huffington Post points out, Jones argues that Melanie’s refusal to wear makeup touches upon a deeper issue: unwarranted notions of self-entitlement to a job and the rising belief among British women that their personal rights are above everyone else’s.

Jones states: "that (1) a survey revealed that British employers are more inclined to hire immigrants because they are willing to make an effort, unlike British women (and that wearing make-up reflects an effort); (2) that British women “think the world owes them a living, and that their ‘rights’ as an individual are all that matters.”

Jones maintains that choosing to exercise personal autonomy over one’s body by not wearing makeup while making a living reflects a belief that the “world owes me a living.” This argument is bizarre. When did exercising autonomy over one’s body become an assertion of entitlement to making a living? Jones is misplacing the line that divides knowing and voluntarily engaging a corporate culture (or the culture of a respective working environment) and the ability to maintain personal autonomy over one’s body in that environment.

There is no doubt that each work environment has its own culture and expectations in regards to how one presents herself in that field. I have no illusions that when I enter a court room I will do so in the proper attire. I understood this expectation when deciding to pursue a legal career. However, a line exists that divides what is expected from me as a legal practitioner and the right to determine how I choose to express myself while satisfying those expectations. Therefore, while the legal field shall require me to wear a skirt or pants suit into the courtroom, whether I choose to wear makeup is a matter of my self-express and cannot be determined by an outside agent.

What is my reaction to all this? Was I surprised to learn that women who look their “best” may be perceived by others as more trustworthy (and possibly other admirable qualities)? Was I caught off guard by Liz Jones’ comments, which helped to blur the line between one’s work environment and the right to exercise autonomy over one’s body? Sadly, no. I’m not shocked at all. I’m familiar with these conversations. What caught me a bit off guard was the high number of people who echoed Liz Jones’ thoughts in the comments. I imagined that more women would be against having to wear makeup at work. Looks like I “imagined” incorrectly.


tomindavis said...

Nice post, S. I am also not totally surprised at the conduct of Harrod's. Employers have long had these kinds of unspoken and spoken rules about standards of dress and beauty. Requiring business casual can become more and more developed, and so narrowly drawn, that divergences may stand out like a sore thumb.

That they made this new rule after she started working there, and specifically after she had gone the no-makeup route, is pretty damn brazen, however.

It is really discouraging that people take the view that a not-made-up woman is somehow more confident or trustworthy. Perhaps we make these judgments unconsciously. Still, that is an egregious case of judging a book by its cover. All of the brightest, most trustworthy, and righteous women I know wear makeup when it suits them, and not when it doesn't. My opinion of them has never changed.

I am not shocked by the comments board. Not to be snobby, but comments boards are often (but not always) where the groundlings reside. Every time I go there I come out feeling a little weaker and dismayed.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

S, I must agree with Tom that I am not surprised by Harrod's conduct. For decades, companies have developed "brand" policies that they are increasingly reluctant to break with. As their employment ranks grow, a culture of apathy and acceptance continues to build. Rarely do individuals stand up to the crowd and question the this-is-just-how-things-are-done-mentality.

After reading this article, I was reminded of Abercrombie & Fitch's "Look Policy," brought to light by a lawsuit filed several years ago. After looking through the history of that case, I stumbled upon the latest discouraging news. Recently, the clothing giant came under fire for not allowing Muslim women to participate as models in its advertising campaign. [1] The company has also refused to hire, or in some cases has fired, employees who wear head scarves.

Much like the women who are penalized for not wearing makeup, these women face unfair judgments regarding their beauty, ability to do their job, etc. They were pushed to conform and identify with Western values that were not representative of their individual selves. When will companies realize that they should not be forcing women to give up their autonomy?

[1] http://www.employmentlawdaily.com/index.php/2011/07/17/abercrombie-fitch-look-policy-challenged-by-muslim-women/