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.

Why They Can’t Just Use Cloth: Diapers and the Gendered Politics of Providing Basic Needs

By Dr. Jennifer Randles

September 27th, 2021 kicked off the tenth annual Diaper Need Awareness Week in the United States where one in three families with infants and toddlers cannot afford enough diapers. City, state, and federal legislators across the country endorsed proclamations recognizing diaper deprivation as a problem and applauding the work of a growing national network of diaper banks and pantries that distribute free diapers to families and partner organizations. Privately funded diaper banks have proliferated in the United States since the 1990s and now number in the hundreds. Collectively they distribute millions of disposable diapers a year, and yet meet only about five percent of the estimated need. Diaper bank staff on the front lines of diaper advocacy face consistent criticism. What could possibly be controversial about providing financially strapped families with a basic need every baby has?

For starters, diapers are not officially recognized as a need. Diapers are not covered by existing public aid policies, including SNAP and WIC food assistance programs. Categorized along with hygiene and cleaning products, diapers are an “unallowable” non-food expense. Like other items deemed discretionary rather than medically necessary, diapers are still taxed in most states. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find any parent or caregiver who considers diapers optional. Although welfare cash aid can be used to purchase diapers, it’s not coincidental that the number of diaper banks in the United States has grown exponentially since 1990s welfare reform. Many fewer families now receive cash aid, and the value of that aid has dwindled. The average $80 monthly diaper bill for one child would alone use 8 to 40 percent of the average state benefit through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

But there’s another important reason that diaper bankers face consistent criticism and stalled efforts to pass policies that would provide public diaper support: cloth diapers. In my recent article in Gender & Society based on interviews with 40 diaper bank staff, most of whom were involved in diaper policy advocacy, and 70 mothers who experienced diaper need, I discovered a key case of how gender, class, and race inequalities intersect to impede policies promoting access to basic needs. Many diaper bankers shared stories of policymakers, community members, and other stakeholders who responded to requests for diaper support by asking Why don’t they just use cloth?

Embedded within this seemingly simple retort are numerous sexist, classist, and racist assumptions about easy individual solutions to structural problems like diaper need. Whereas policymakers are still predominantly white, affluent, older men unlikely to change many diapers, much less struggle with diaper need, the parents I interviewed were mostly mothers of color living in poverty who had tried cloth diapering but found it to be more expensive, labor-intensive, and time prohibitive. As Leslie, a Black 28-year-old mother of one, explained to me,  “That’s probably why programs don’t cover diapers, because they think cloth are free. But then you have to spend on washing, detergent, water, electricity, and all the work and worry. You still have to pay for it in some way.” For these reasons, cloth is the diaper type used by a very narrow segment of American families – typically married middle-class homeowners with an in-house washer and dryer and a stay-at-home parent. Most daycare facilities will not accept cloth diapers, and many states have laws prohibiting washing them in public laundry facilities.

Disposable diapers became almost universal during the last three decades of the twentieth century, the same time period when the labor market participation rates of mothers with children three and younger doubled from around 35 to over 70 percent. Now that over 95 percent of babies in the United States wear disposables for most or all of their diapering needs, mothers of color feared that having their children seen in public in anything but a “normal” disposable diaper – such as a cloth diaper presumed to be a “rag” – could invite suspicion about their parental fitness. As it turns out, parents most likely to struggle with diaper need can’t just use cloth diapers because the ability to do so is now profoundly influenced by middle-class, white, androcentric privileges.    

This is a case of what I call gendered policy vacuums, which refer to when gender disparities and ideologies result in policy gaps around caregiving and provisions needed to satisfy basic human needs for sustenance, health, cleanliness, and dignity. Gender policy vacuums have emerged around numerous related struggles, including food insecurity, housing instability, and most recently, childcare deficits in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The American ideology of individualism tasks mothers with responsibility for ensuring their children’s well-being through labor-intensive and time-consuming parenting practices, such as breastfeeding, home-cooking, and cloth diapering. But such directives devalue and render invisible feminized care labor, especially that performed by low-income mothers of color.

As mothers shared with me, the same social, economic, and political conditions that intersect to create their diaper need also prevent them from using cloth diapers as a way to meet that need. But the assumption that poor women’s labor can readily solve problems of gender inequality  – as the Why don’t they just use cloth? retort suggests – rationalizes lack of public redress for gendered inequalities and resultant policy gaps around caregiving. As one diaper bank founder, Janine, said of her continued efforts to advocate for diaper policies: “We expect so much more of poor mothers, so why not cloth, many ask. For families for whom that works, great! But why do we expect the poorest parents to do the most work? I want people to have what they need. Most of them need disposable diapers.” Let’s hope that our policies will eventually acknowledge that need, paving the way for public support for this basic need so easily taken for granted – unless your baby doesn’t have one.  

Jennifer Randles (@jrandles3) is Professor and Chair of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. She is the author of Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America and Essential Dads: The Inequalities and Politics of Fathering. She is currently writing a book on diaper insecurity, the diaper bank movement, and diaper politics.

“good” and “bad” women: gender performance in the context of class stratification

Credit: Furqan Jawed

By Sidra Kamran

Feminists have long critiqued the false binary of “good woman” vs. “bad woman” but these caricatures still survive in some circles. But some women are increasingly rejecting this good/bad dichotomy and developing new types of femininities which combine characteristics of both “good” and “bad” womanhood. For example, the  #girlboss identity fuses characteristics of conventional femininity with the traditionally masculine traits of aggressiveness and authority. However, who creates these new meanings for femininity and are they available to all?

My research explores how these caricatures of “good woman” and “bad woman” play out in the lives of Pakistani working-class women workers. In Pakistan, the locally idealized form of femininity is that of respectable femininity, meaning women who are domestic, modest, religious, docile, and follow middle-class norms of behavior. In contrast, stigmatized femininity is associated with women who spend time in the public sphere, interact with men who are not relatives, are overly sexual or aggressive, and follow working-class norms of behavior and speech.

During ethnographic fieldwork in a women-only marketplace in Karachi, Meena Bazaar, I noticed that women engaged in a wide range of contradictory gender behaviors.  On the one hand, women beauty and retail workers regularly shouted, cursed, acted in a hypersexualized feminine way, and fought with customers and co-workers alike. They seemed to embody stereotypes of “bad women.” On the other hand, workers also constantly attempted to signal respectability, invoked the idea of their own “izzat” (translated as honor/respect/moral reputation), and sometimes were modest, religious, and upheld middle-class norms. Initially, it appeared that some women beauty and retail workers presented themselves as “good” respectable women whereas others willfully performed “bad” womanhood. On closer examination, however, I realized that it was not that some women were invested in being “good” and others in being “bad”, but rather, the same women were continuously fluctuating between both forms of femininity.

What explains this cacophony of femininities in Meena Bazaar?  I argue that women performed these different forms of femininity in attempts to accrue economic benefits such as wages and profits at the same time as respectability and social status. While adopting the “bad women” type of femininity usually decreases women’s reputation, in the context of Meena Bazaar, it also enabled access to economic benefits. For example, managers required their workers to be aggressive, loud, and domineering so that workers could effectively recruit customers amidst the tough competition in the bazaar. However, women did not earn sufficient economic benefits in these low-wage jobs and remained marked as low status both inside and outside the workplace. Thus, they also attempted to approximate more respectable femininity, for example, by adopting both religious and docile attitudes, in an effort to gain status by proving their morality. Since women workers in Meena Bazaar, mostly working-class, were unable to secure sufficient economic benefits or moral respectability to secure “good women” status, they relied on using both kinds of femininity as a survival strategy.

Professional middle-class women and feminists who are rejecting prevalent gender norms are often celebrated as the “new women” of South Asia. Working-class beauty and retail workers in Meena Bazaar were also defying gender norms. They were working outside their homes in low-status jobs and performing “bad” womanhood by abandoning traditionally feminine ways of behaving in docile and restrained ways. However, unlike middle-class and elite women in high status jobs, women in Meena Bazaar did not consciously reject, fuse, or re-define the dichotomy of “good” and” bad” women to herald a new type of womanhood. Rarely did workers in Meena Bazaar brazenly self-identify with “bad” womanhood, even as they performed it by discarding traditional femininity and rejecting the inequalities between traditional masculinity and femininity. Rather, they clung to the opposites of “good” and “bad” woman as they tried to identify as “good” and used these stereotypes to disparage other workers.

Intentionally subversive gender performances are a key tactic of feminist movements in Pakistan and elsewhere, and highlight the poverty of respectability politics. However, my research suggests that such tactics must also be accompanied by other strategies for societal change. Class inequality forces working-class women to use the caricatures of “good” and “bad” womanhood to leverage their status. Working-class women who otherwise defy prevailing gender norms continue to aspire toward respectable femininity, even when this kind of femininity is ultimately used to stigmatize them. My research shows why working-class women continue to vacillate between these opposites of “good” and “bad” womanhood and are invested in maintaining this dichotomy, rather than challenging it. Ultimately, this “good woman” vs. “bad woman” binary allows them to gain status in a class-stratified society. In the absence of efforts to address this class inequality, gender stereotypes are unlikely to be upended, as women will continue to use whatever kind of femininity, they need to in order to increase their chances of a better life.

Sidra Kamran (@sidrakn) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the New School for Social Research, where she has also completed a graduate certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her dissertation examines the flourishing yet stigmatized occupations of beauty and retail work in Pakistan and her other research analyses how TikTok is enabling the unprecedented entry of women and sexual minorities into Pakistan’s digital public sphere. You can read more about her research here.

“Women’s Work” and the Welfare State: New analysis quantifies how gender, class and social policy shape unpaid care work

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities in unpaid care work, with increased childcare and housework burdens disproportionately borne by women. Across Europe and North America, women have been pushed out of the labor market, while mothers are increasingly suffering from stress and burnout.

Social policy might be able to reverse these trends – and the Carework Network has been urging the Biden-Harris administration to take decisive action now and reinvest in care infrastructure to “build back better”. Similar campaigns have been launched internationally, including in Canada and the UK.

But what can data tell us about the potential for welfare programs to address the gender gap in unpaid care work?

In our recent article in Gender & Society, we quantify the connections between social policy spending and inequality amongst unpaid care workers across 29 European countries.

We find that social policies do matter in addressing women’s “double burden” (at home and in paid work). Spending on social policies targeted to families – i.e., child allowances and credits, childcare supports, parental leave supports, and single-parent payments – is associated with a smaller gender gap in time spent on housework. And while this dynamic is visible across the income spectrum, it is strongest in lower income households.

The Gendered and Classed Dimensions of Unpaid Care

Data from the 2007/2008 and 2016/2017 waves of the European Quality of Life Survey highlights the scope of the care crisis even before the onset of the pandemic.

Figure 1 presents the mean weekly number of hours spent on unpaid care, broken down by care type (i.e. childcare as compared to housework), gender, and income quartile, for people living with at least one child under the age of 18 years. Several patterns emerge.

First, across all income groups, childcare makes up the majority of time dedicated to unpaid care work. This means both men and women spend proportionately more time caring for children than cooking and cleaning.

Second, women devote around twice as much time to unpaid caring as men. This pattern is consistent across the income spectrum, though the gender gap is especially large in lower income households.

Third, women with higher household income spend less time on unpaid care work than their poorer counterparts – likely because wealthier women outsource work to paid care providers. Men, by contrast, dedicate similar (lower) amounts of time to unpaid care work regardless of income level.

Fourth, childcare makes up a larger proportion of unpaid care work for wealthier women than for poorer ones. This reinforces prior research on “intensive mothering”: time spent educating children has become an important means of class reproduction within higher-income families, while “menial” tasks such as cooking and cleaning are more readily outsourced.

Spending on Family Policy is Associated with Reduced Inequalities in Housework

Using national data from the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation’s SOCX database, we then examine the state’s potential role in reducing inequalities in unpaid care work.

Figure 2 illustrates the relationship between how much a country spends on helping families (as a percentage of GDP) and the mean number of total hours spent by women and men, per country, on housework.

The two panels highlight that the gender gap in unpaid housework is a common feature across each of the 29 countries we examine. Regardless of the country or level of spending, women continually perform more unpaid housework then men.

Yet the data also show that the more a country spends to help its families thrive, the fewer hours women spend on housework. Women in countries where money spent on families accounts for a higher proportion of GDP spend less time, on average, doing unpaid housework tasks.

Using Family Policy to Build Back Better

Our analyses show that while women – and especially poorer women – spend more time on unpaid care work than men, carefully designed social policy spending may help to shrink the size of that gender gap. For governments, then, (re)investing in social programs that target families offers a promising route forward to counteract the large increases in unpaid care work that have occurred during the pandemic. These programs should be a crucial component of post-pandemic efforts to create a more equitable and caring society.

Naomi Lightman is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary. Her current research focuses on the of impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the employment conditions and health and well-being of paid caregivers in long-term care settings. Her related research publications examine the intersections of gender, inequality, care work (paid and unpaid), and social policy. You can follow her on Twitter @naomilightman.

Anthony Kevins is Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at Loughborough University. His research centers around inequality, public opinion, and various social policy programs, often with a focus on labor market vulnerability. You can read more about his research on his website, which also includes non-paywalled, open-access copies of his published studies – and you can follow him on Twitter @avkevins.

Bridgework: globalization, gender, and service labor at a luxury hotel

By Eileen M. Otis

Sociological studies of work have long ventured overseas to understand the conditions of employment and global networks that produce goods consumed in the global north. Scarce are studies that take a look at globalization and work at the other end of the supply chain: consumer services. This is important because in recent years retailers and hoteliers have traveled from the global north to the global south nearly as fast as manufactured goods have journeyed the opposite direction. This is also critical because the sociology of service work has rarely ventured beyond contexts in which customers and workers largely share in a single culture (with all its etiquettes, manners, symbols and rules), even as class, race and gender differences may be present. As a result, sociologists tend to focus on how workers use familiar habits of behavior in workplaces that require interaction with customers. For example the word “emotion work” is used to describe the psychological effort expended when workers are asked to treat strangers with the warmth they might reserve for family members or friends. Another term “aesthetic labor” describes the ways in which workers’ manner of dress, style, grooming and speech must conform to the meet the expectations of posh or hip clientele. Employers hire workers of the appropriate class backgrounds to perform such labor. Overlooked by these two terms is the effort workers make to learn new ways of expressing emotions, novel styles of presenting themselves and unfamiliar modes of interacting when their customers originate from different nations and cultures.

To remedy these limitations, my research follows the path of one of the largest hoteliers in the world, a U.S. chain, to Beijing China. I conducted an ethnography of an outlet of this hotel chain, interviewing workers and managers, part of a project that lasted over a year. In this hotel, managers hire and train young women who are native to Beijing to enact what I term “bridgework”: the acquisition of body and feeling rules dominant among customers whose national and cultural origins diverge from workers. Customers at the hotel were mostly white, male, upper class and traveled from the U.S. and other points in the global north to engage in various business ventures while lodging at the Beijing Transluxury (a pseudonym). The women hotel workers who serve them must speak English, adopt English names, and comport themselves in a manner reflective of an American middle class femininity. Managers spent countless hours training these young women workers to adopt the emotional expressions, modes of interaction and manner of comportment expected by their customers. Managers showed them how and when to smile –and when not to smile. They were taught how to greet customers using the appropriate titles and making eye contact. They were even taught how to walk.  They were not allowed to lift tables or heavy trays; they wore uniforms that limited their range of motion, preventing even occasional heavy labor. Managers sought to create a staff of young women workers who would appeal to the heterosexual and class sensibilities of their clientele. But there was a constant tug-of-war between workers’ long held sense of appropriate behavior and these new practices. A few workers resisted some of the practices; a more common response was reinterpreting the new standards of behavior to conform to workers’ long held sense of etiquette and ethics. Continue reading “Bridgework: globalization, gender, and service labor at a luxury hotel”

The Gender Pray Gap

By Landon Schnabel 

Rosary
Picture from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosary

Despite men holding most religious leadership positions, on any given Sunday there are typically more women than men in U.S. churches. Twenty seven percent of women but only 19 percent of men say they attend religious services at least once a week. Women also pray more frequently than men, with 66 percent of women and only 43 percent of men reporting that they pray daily. The gender gap in religion is so strong that U.S. religious congregations are getting creative in their attempts to attract more men, from changing décor and musical styles to hosting mixed martial arts fights in churches as depicted in the 2014 “Fight Church” documentary.

Are There Gender Differences among U.S. Elites?

Some scholars have argued that hormones make females more religious than males. They used a 17th century theological argument, Pascal’s Wager, to claim that being irreligious is risky. Then they said that because males have more testosterone, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior—such as violent crime and not going to church. But feminist scholars have consistently demonstrated that most gender differences are the result of social (i.e., gender), rather than biological (i.e., sex), factors, and that all women and all men are not the same. In this article, I use the case of U.S. elites to consider how gendered social experiences can make people more or less religious. On average, women are more religious than men, but are high-earning women (those who make more than $100,000 a year) more religious than high-earning men?Schnabel_final color

Among high earners, women are no more religious than men. High-earning men are just as likely as high-earning women to be religiously affiliated, to pray daily, to identify as a strong member of their religion, and to attend religious services weekly. This convergence occurs because the relationship between earnings and religiosity operates differently for women and men. High-earning women are consistently less religious than low-earning women, and high-earning men are consistently more religious than low-earning men. Continue reading “The Gender Pray Gap”

Researching Magical Lesbians

by Penelope Dane

SuccubusIn mythology, a succubus is a woman demon who seduces men and sucks away their vitality. On Lost Girl, a Canadian supernatural drama, shown on Syfy and Netflix in the US, the heroine Bo is a succubus who belongs to a magical race called the Fae who often exploit humans. However, Bo uses her powers to protect other women from rapists, to fight for the rights of humans, and to restore life. Continue reading “Researching Magical Lesbians”