Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn't want to be sold pants by an ugly person. In her recent article for Salon, Williams maintains that the appearance-centered hiring practices and employee regulations of retail giants American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch are just, you know, logical and unproblematic corporate tactics to uphold and brands' image. They're not lookist, they're not racist, and they're not sexist. Based on the evidence, though, we can't give her analysis that much credit.
What Williams, a staff writer at Salon, is critiquing is a slew of what she calls "self-righteously naive" Gawker stories on the practices of both companies. In June, Gawker posted internal documents wherein American Apparel executives clearly outlined how the employee's clothing, jewelry, hair, eyebrows, facial hair, and makeup should look. Since then, Gawker has routinely posted the allegations of lookism by employees, not to mention a number of solid examples of blatant racism and sexism against both current employees and applicants.
On Monday, Gawker posted a note from a district manager of Abercrombie and Fitch-owned Ruehl that touched on seemingly similarly strict hiring and employee regulations, or, in the managers' words:
The Standard of the people we hire is THE most important part of the job. We must always audit our schedule to assure we have the best looking & best styled associates working at all times. There is NO reason we accept excuses for who we are hiring.The fact that both AA and Abercrombie have lookist hiring practices isn't all that surprising. Certainly, on the notoriety level of poorly-made over-priced clothing both companies, though they target different markets, are some of the easiest targets. AA has been in the blogosphere time and again for its creepy sexual predator of a boss (among other things!), and Abercrombie has irked middle-class parents with its soft-core porn advertising for more than a decade. Clearly, to both companies, their employees' appearance is a crucial aspect of their brand. And, just as clearly, this has to do with the bottom line of multinational corporations, which don't operate with the same ethics many would hope they could expect. In that way, Mary Elizabeth Williams' critique makes sense. In her own words, "the fact remains that for certain jobs, attractiveness is part of the job description." Realistically, yes, of course it is. But does that mean any critique of this business practice is invalid? Just because it's a standard among many a multinational corporation, a standard that's not likely to go away any time soon, we should just suck it up and accept the fact that that's just the way the world works?
In different ways, both retail outfits appeal to and strive for the business of All-American upper-middle-class and, certainly, white young people. They want to hire people that fit that mold. No one too fat, no one too brown, no one too ugly, no one too non-gender-conforming. To Williams, this isn't a problem; the mold of what an ideal employee looks like is not problematic because it fits in with their brand image. Yet, if their brand image specifically weeds out applicants based on their race, size, ability, gender identity and appearance, even if this isn't said in so many words, that goes beyond being simply a "brand image" and towards, well, discrimination. Indeed, there are a number of documented cases, dating before the recent Gawker stories, that expose lookist practices that are about a whole lot more than just, well, lookism:
- In 2004, Abercrombie & Fitch settled a class-action lawsuit with a number of people that were either not hired or terminated because on their race. The suit alleged "that Abercrombie hires a disproportionately white sales force, favors white employees for the best positions, and discourages minorities from even applying for jobs."
- In June 2009, Gawker Media-owned Jezebel highlighted a Daily Mail story on former Abercrombie employee Riam Dean, whose prosthetic arm was deemed unfit for the retailers' "attractiveness standards." She was then banished to the stockroom by higher-ups, and sued the company.
- Plus-Size adult star April Flores made waves in the blogosphere in May after an American Apparel showroom rep told her that plus sized clothers aren't their "demographic." In that respect, considering the fact that AA employees are required to wear AA clothing, potential applicants that can't fit in AA clothes can potentially be subject to termination based on size.
- In March of this year, New York-based nonprofit Make the Road filed a complaint with the state's Attorney General after they tested the employment offers of trans folks against non-trans folks with the same age, race, and experience. While neither AA nor Abercrombie were among the 24 retailers tested, the study "found a 42 percent net rate of discrimination for transgender job applicants... [and] 49 percent of transgender workers surveyed reported that they have never been offered a job in the time that they have lived openly as transgender."
- In 2009, Samantha Elauf, a Muslim teenager from Oklahoma, sued Abercrombie after was told that her hijab would not pass the retailers' appearance policies.
By Williams' terms, then, it seems that discrimination is A-OK as long as the discrimination comes at the hand of a multinational corporation. Williams snarks, "Wait—you want people who look good in your clothes to sell them? Oh, the injustice! All the plain people will have to work at Radio Shack!" Well, sure, Mary Elizabeth Williams, but in a culture where "beautiful" is considered thin, white, Christian, able-bodied and cisgendered, there is something unjust about lookist hiring and employee policies.