Plastic Bodies: Women Workers and Emerging Body Rules in Service Work in Urban India

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By Asiya Islam

The climax of the hugely popular, if only slightly dated, series, Ugly Betty, is Betty’s makeover – in its various iterations around the world, Betty tends to lose her braces, smooth out her frizzy hair, replace chunky glasses with contact lenses, and tap into the transformative powers of makeup. Usually, the radical change in appearance helps her to achieve romantic success. From Ugly Betty and The Princess Diaries to Barbie and online games, makeovers are designed for women, targeting appearances, as a site of insecurity and as untapped site of personal power.

Some recent attempts at feminist retellings of Ugly Betty frame her makeover in terms of professional, rather than romantic, success and confidence. To a certain extent, this reflects contemporary developments in the world of work – globally, with the emergence of service work (think cafes, salons, hotels) and women’s entry into traditionally male occupations, women’s participation in the workforce has increased. In services, and particularly in front roles, such as, receptionists, sales assistants, stewards, and others, women’s appearances matter – service workers are expected to appease customer sensibilities through not only pleasant greetings, friendly conversation, and helpful demeanour, but also makeup and clothing.

Young women working in services in Delhi agree that a makeover is required to become a professional. I have been conducting long-term ethnographic research with such women. In a discussion about emerging job opportunities, a young girl, referring to her friend’s elder sister who worked at a mall, admiringly noted, ‘She wears pants and shirts to work, right?!’ Another woman, Chandni, shared how her personality had changed by being in work – she was no longer a ‘village-type girl’ with ‘oily braided hair’, rather she had become a modern urban woman who knew how to do ‘light’ and classy makeup. Many had indeed enrolled in ‘personality development’ classes at skills centres to adapt their body language – posture, smile, handshake – to suit the middle/upper class sensibility of their workplaces.

Is a makeover something that is done to you or rather does it require active participation to make yourself over? How do workers appraise emerging requirements for such makeovers in service work? In my research in Gender & Society, I show that although there are aspects of changes to their appearance that young women enjoy, they are far from simply accepting and endorsing these makeovers. Indeed, while strategically adopting some bodily changes, women also reflect upon and critique the workplaces that demand them in the first place.

The first time I met Prachi, she greeted me, smiling, with ‘Good morning, ma’am’ as I walked into the café she worked at. A few months later, when our relationship had developed beyond that of worker and customer, Prachi shared her frustrations with work. After she quit, she grumbled about having to ‘keep a plastic smile on the whole day’, referring to the artificial and forced nature of her smile. Chandni shared Prachi’s frustration, both of them agreed that although they are required to wear formal clothes – shirt, trousers, belt, black shoes, and socks – this is not matched by the quality of work. Prachi continued, ‘I was like what the hell are you trying to do. It’s only Rs.7000 [USD 95] salary anyway. Chandni also said it’s so professional in the training, neighbours think we’re going to a good job, then we go back to our aukat [status] …’ After donning smart appearance for the training sessions, the women felt that they were demoted to their working/lower middle class status with low pay, long working hours, and limited career progression at work.

Their makeovers are, then, really about attempting to appear as solidly middle class and changing their personalities to match their new look. At times, they  find pleasure in these changes, but they also experience them as a problem because of the mismatch with the low-end, poorly paid service work they are doing. They further worry that people will be able to see through their newly adopted looks and personalities, rendering them inauthentic and embarrassing. I consider these varied dynamics of changes to women’s bodies in emerging service work in urban India as “plastic.” This metaphor refers to the ways in which women use their bodies to find and keep jobs in service industries. My research shows how ‘plastic bodies’ are site for both self-expression and assertion of agency, as well as a way jobs compel women to change themselves. My findings draw attention to the complex ways in which, unlike the delightful acceptance of makeovers by fictional characters such as Betty and Princess Mia, women workers both enjoy and critique the changes they must make to their bodies to participate in service work.

Asiya Islam is a Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leeds. Her research explores emerging gender and class relations in urban India through the life narratives of young lower middle class women, with particular focus on emerging forms and futures of work and social inequalities.

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