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Panel – Aesthetic Labor

Western society tends to emphasize the visual senses. Nevertheless, how workers speak and what they say is as important as their looks in aesthetic labour. However as Elizabeth Eustace points out in an article recently published in Work, Employment and Society, workers’ speech has been relatively neglected by researchers. It’s a neglect that needs to be rectified.

Our speech is socialised. There are two outcomes. Firstly, what we say and how we say it defines us; it both classifies us – where we’re from, what education we’ve had and who our parents are. Secondly, because some forms of speech are more favoured than others, it hierarchicalises us. There are thus more and less desirable ways of speaking. What playwright George Bernard Shaw said in his foreword to his play Pygmalion at the start of the twentieth century is still pertinent today in the twenty-first: ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate and despise him.’

Organisations also have their preferred linguistic codes. Employers try to hire people who speak in particular ways because it reflects on the organisation and how it is perceived. Organisations also train employees to speak in particular ways, suggesting what is to be said and how it is to be said.

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J. Jill employee via Life Magazine

I’ve started to notice more “help wanted” signs in retail stores.  Does this mean that the economy is recovering?  People may be shopping more, and stores may be hiring more.  But retail jobs will never improve this economy unless retail jobs are improved.

In this industry, full-time schedules are rare—most people are hired on a temporary and part-time basis—and pay is slightly more than minimum wage.  These jobs offer neither benefits nor opportunities for advancement.  Although many stores advertise “flexible” schedules, hours are worked only “as needed,” with schedules and hours shifting from one week to the next with little advance warning.  Workers cannot support themselves on the wages from these jobs.

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Photo via Improv Everywhere 

The photo above, of an Abercrombie model posing with customers, embodies the sociological concept of aesthetic labor. Sociologists have been particularly interested in this phenomenon, which is the inclusion of an employee’s ‘look’ or ‘feel’ into the workplace. In many places, including some elements of the retail industry and the modeling industry, being a good or desirable employee is defined not just by the skill with which work is done, but also by the aesthetic qualities of employee.

We are posting a three part commentary today discussing the phenomenon of aesthetic labor. The initial post by Ashley Mears describes her work as a model in New York City’s fashion industry. The second post, by Emily Cummins, describes aesthetic labor, gender and the wedding industry. Finally, we are pleased to feature some commentary by Jeff Sallaz on the concept of aesthetic labor itself.

Photo via Abercrombie & Fitch

Because it’s an exciting moment in fieldwork methods, I tell the story often of how I entered my research site for my new book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.  My first year in graduate school, I was approached by a model scout in a coffee shop in Manhattan, who lauded my “look” and potential to make it big as a fashion model.  This scout opened a narrow window of opportunity through which I gained entry as a working model at an agency in New York, and later in London, where I would spend 2 ½ years observing the market from the inside.  That was one fortuitous cup of coffee. Read More

Photo via Improv Everywhere

This response is posted on behalf of Jeff Sallaz.

The idea of aesthetic labor is a fascinating one.  What does it mean to get paid to create beauty?  A beautician by definition engages in aesthetic labor, but so too does an avante-garde film-maker.  Are we justified to compare what happens in a hair salon with what occurs in a movie studio?   In both cases we find work that is extremely difficult to routinize or mechanize.  (Are you a Flowbee user?  Nuff said.)  And in both cases we find that acts of production and consumption are united in a way that complicates Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism (witness the cult of the auteur).

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