by Mirra Kardonne
I’m walking down my street in the last week of living at my old place near Dundonald and Church. Some friends and I are going for a drink–both to say ‘Goodbye Gaybourhood’ and to catch up—they’ve been in Thailand shooting a documentary, I’ve been tying up loose ends and hustling like a mad hustling machine. The past six years of my world is packed up in boxes in my apartment, while my last week at my old job looms ever closer. We go to a neighbourhood bar, and after the wine is drunk and the charcuterie is nibbled, one of the three of us steps out onto the street to smoke. When she comes back in, she announces: “I’ve just been offered a job!”
“What?” I blurt. That’s not fair. “Who? What job?”
“Yeah, this guy I know from wherever-the-fuck said he’s managing a new bar, asked me if I need a job and if I have any cute friends who are looking.”
“Can I be your cute friend?”
And so it goes. Do you remember the scene in the movie adaptation of Oliver, when the newly enfranchised young orphan steps out onto his personal balcony and sees all those young, buxom peasant girls singing in harmonies to the fancy-folk? Who will buy her sweet red roses? Her milk? Her fresh strawberries?
Well, let me tell you—Strawberries was asked if she had any cute friends to bring to the new singing-to-young-men strip o’sidewalk, Roses had a ‘better attitude’ and got top bill, and the others were a dime a dozen—let’em all sing about milk! And that tenor pushing the knife grinder? Better let him do it, those cuties might not know which end of the knife needs grinding. Let those extremely slim and fair-skinned sirens tempt you with breakfast and flowers— two blooms for only a penny!
I make money many ways, but damn, it’s a slog. Art and teaching don’t always cut it. At 17, I no longer lived with my parents, I had yet to acquire a post-secondary education, I had no resume to speak of…what to do?
At 19, I moved into the apartment where I would live for the next six years. I walked into a hair salon, armed with a resume filled with fake references. The proprietor doesn’t glance at it, he just looks me up and down and says, “I like that you’re not scared of low-cut tops”.
“… Oh. Well…no, I guess I’m not.”
“It’s 7:30 am to 2:30 pm.”
“Do you want to look at my resume?”
“I don’t care what you did before. You could be a prostitute and I don’t care. You know I hire prostitutes sometimes? You could be one, it doesn’t bother me.”
“I’m not a prostitute.”
“Well, even if you were…”
Hot dog! I’m a working gal! Start from the bottom…
…And go sideways from there. To date, I’ve had approximately one million jobs (closer to 25, maybe). I just keep quitting them, you see.
I don’t quit them because I don’t need the money, nor do I quit because I’m such a staunch feminist that I am fed and housed by naught but my convictions. I would quit because I couldn’t stand to be there, even if I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why not. It’s all so normal- so banal. As a young pup in the job market, when asked why I had had so many jobs, I would explain with a laugh (to hide my embarrassment) that I’m categorically BAD at EVERYTHING I deem to be unimportant. That must be it! I’m a snob, and that is a character flaw! This idea had little traction among those who know a little something about me, though it remained the most plausible explanation for my track record as job after job repulsed my best efforts to conform with shocking hiring practices and even more shocking behaviour towards low-level staff. Later, I would rant that service jobs rely on the young/desperate beggars-can’t-be-choosers demographic to leap at work which pays an amount of money that can barely sustain even the most frugal. But that’s normal. It’s all par for the course. No one’s asking me to quit, I can very well stay. In fact, it is expected that I, and other young women, will definitely stay. Because this is a Great Way to make money while the real plan, the plan A warms up and gets cooking. Everyone with a Bachelors degree knows that your education is by no means a guarantee of loftier future employment. But what does it mean when something like waitressing is the best you can get? Well, that depends on who you are. Son–it’s good in the meantime, if you have some time off and need some cash. Ladies: Good for you. You have a career.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. One of the few available and unblocked passages towards power for women living in a patriarchy is to adhere to conventional beauty norms. (Although the ‘power’ is not all that powerful). Nonetheless, it is ‘better’ to be an attractive woman when applying for service jobs, because the likelihood of being hired is higher. That much is not a secret. What is a secret is the systemic non-hiring of ‘unattractive’ women. If you are say, looking for a job as a waitress, (because hey—tips) there is literally no hiring manager who will not hire a sexy girl over an ‘average’ one. That’s my unofficial take on it, concluded only from the dozens of interviews I have had with restauranteurs or managers, and the predictable outcome of those interviews based on MY type of outfit, voice-perkiness, hair up or down, makeup or no makeup. Look for yourself. The Yukon chain Earls has received the kind of PR venom you can only get from being exposed in biased and gendered hiring practices. There is nary an employee who can remember an unattractive or even overweight person ever having worked at Earls… as their hiring motto states: “If you’d fuck them, hire them.” Although you’re likely to get fired if fucking actually occurs. Too bad that magic ‘spark’ is a salient factor in hiring women.
Article after article describes the phenomenon of ‘attractive’ women trapped under a glass ceiling, hired as sexy ornaments in eateries and retail but barred from high earning jobs. More frustrating still, woebegone economists and statisticians posit that the obsession with attractiveness and sex appeal that women have had to suffer for decades has leaked into the man-realm, and now men trying to secure positions as attorneys, professors and politicians have to contend with the same discrimination that women who are trying to secure a mate feel every day. Oh yes. That, at least, is the position of Daniel S. Mamerstash, who goes on to write a tearful article about how attractiveness is just such a crapshoot, men taste it when they dive into professional endeavours, women—when they want babies.
Gavin McGarrigle points out in his article that among a female staff hired explicitly to be sexual, there is no union to protect against sexual harassment. Comila Shahani-Denning, an associate professor in the psychology department at Hofstra University speaks to that lack of recourse:
“Research examining attractiveness bias in hiring decisions is important because of the extensive use of subjective appraisals in employment decision making. Given the legislation prohibiting employment discrimination based on non-job-related factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, disability and age, it is interesting that there is no legislation regarding physical attractiveness (Watkins & Johnston, 2000).”
But whatever their reasoning, one idea reiterated from Mamerstash to McGarrigle to Shahani-Denning is that there should be legal recourse for appearance-based discrimination, both for the ‘unattractive’ and the ‘attractive’.
Sigh. There are so many factors to consider. One is so tempted to conclude that there’s no possible pattern among all the hiring and firing practices: sometimes, people just don’t get hired. Or they do. One is, of course, so very enticed by this idea because THAT WOULD BE GREAT, and it would be better if things were better instead of the far worse reality. Mamerstash, in his horribly misguided op-ed, declares it irredeemably unfair of the world to limit the opportunities of qualified men who were not blessed with good looks. After all, they can’t even get a girl (*ahem* I call bullshit), why you make them broke, too? McGarrigle asks why gender or attractiveness must play into your skill set when looking for employment. “Let’s say you’re simply ugly due to your luck of the gene pool, is that a medical condition? That could be argued. That’s your genetic composition,” Says Stacey Ball, an employment-lawyer in Toronto. And here we go again, right back to Power, my favourite topic. Is there objective beauty which can be rewarded or punished monetarily, and in the job market? Is beauty power? Because this would suggest beauty actually causes a dis-empowerment of its bearers.
And separate from the question of if you can or cannot get hired as an attractive or unattractive woman in a service position, and whether or not either camp can sue for discrimination, I’m still left wondering, where are the men for these same jobs? I know legions of unemployed young men who would love to work as a waiter, or as a receptionist. But they can’t. Those young men don’t seem to be sexy girls…where’s their “nice ass/decent rack”? And those times when they can, it’s only for now, until they make their next big move into professionalism. Right? We’ve been here before.
Have you ever been to a frat party? That’s what working in a lot of restaurants is like. Dim the lights , turn up the music and fill the place with hot women who want to ask you questions, you’ve stumbled into the party you’re too cool to even know is happening. Girls and women will get paid to be the object of fleeting and untenable desire. Certainly that’s where the guaranteed tip-money is, at places like Jack Astors or Milestones. For instance, on the Jack Astors application:
“We have specific requirements for personal appearance, as described in our Welcome brochure. Are you willing to meet our requirements? Yes/No.”
What are these requirements?
Form fitting clothes that ‘skim’ the body, low necklines (up to two buttons done-up) and short skirts (down to the Jack Astors preferred brand). My sneaky informant tells me, when trying to adhere to the Welcome brochure uniform code (otherwise known as the Look Book), she was told she looked “boring” which was only remedied by donning a very short skirt (her [female] manager looked pleased with her, smiled and said “Wow! I can see your legs! That’s more like it, lady!”) She reports that when hired, most other new female employees were 19-21. Thinking that she already looked good for a hostess, during training the manager informs her that the skirt she chose was “too long” ( just above her knee) and that her face and hair were “boring” and to “put on more makeup”.
Walk into an office/bar/club/, pretty girl smiles at you and makes you feel welcome. It’s a fantasy too commonplace to be any real danger, yes? One might ask, what kind of danger are we talking about? At first we talk about economic danger, women on all points of a completely subjective attractiveness spectrum are compensated or not for something over which they have no control. Attractiveness or the opposite will both reward and punish depending on a number of factors, but by and large, women are pan-societally punished for being pretty, being ugly, being too smart or too dumb, being too single or too pregnant. And what choices are left to women who simply cannot pay the bills?
The idea of decorating of a space with women in order to lend an immediate perception of luxury and safety is one that was first introduced to me in an Ancient Civilizations course at the University of Toronto. How interesting, thought I. What a slippery kind of power women do have. The effect of simply being inspires the feeling of wealth and of decadence. Whether or not they are objects of sexual desire, women are always desired to facilitate specific ends: to raise the status, to inspire the illusion of… safety.
How curious. Hey! Women! You inspire feelings of safety! So tell me… Do you feel safe?
No? Late at night? In revealing dress? Mandated in the handbook? Wages and tips hanging in the balance?
Is that, perhaps, what you’re being paid to part with?