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.

Credit for Poor Women: Debt or Empowerment?

By Smitha Radhakrishnan

You have heard the story. A poor woman in a rural village is trying to support her four kids with the meager income that her drunkard husband deigns to give her. She is then offered a group loan, without collateral, for a small amount of money that allows her to buy a cow. She tends to the cow and sells the milk, and eventually, starts to earn a bit more money. She pays back her loan and then takes another. Before long, she owns a herd of cows, her children are educated, and her husband has given up drinking to become her business partner. This is the motivating story of the $115 billion global microfinance industry, popularized for years by everyone from the Nike Foundation to the Harvard Business Review.

Now, this story may well have been possible in some places in the world at some point in recent history. But today, microfinance has become a profitable industry that provides financial products to the poor that are too expensive for the rich. At interest rates typically ranging from 22%-90% per year, profitable microfinance companies around the world now consider themselves providers of “financial inclusion,” and not women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation, or even enterprise development. This “mission shift” comes as a result of significant criticism from academics, social activists, and even microfinance practitioners around the world, and a significant crisis in India. Critics have noted that microfinance can push vulnerable families into debt spirals, that microfinance has been associated with suicides due to overly aggressive collection practices, and that for-profit microfinance especially caters to the better off working classes rather than the poorest. In contrast, however, recent research in West Bengal, India supports the idea that some forms of microfinance may provide women with the potential for collective social action.

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Borrowers engage in entrepreneurial training activity, Coimbatore.

Continue reading “Credit for Poor Women: Debt or Empowerment?”

A call to knowledge: Let’s gather more data before rushing to action

By Poulami Roychowdhury

In a context like India, where law enforcement personnel are both perpetrators of sexual violence and have limited capacities to enforce legal rights, what should we actually do to counter rape? At the risk of resolving the practical dilemma with a call for academic inquiry, that is exactly what I am about to propose. Before devising more policies and interventions, we need more data and we need better data. The need for data gathering becomes self evident when we examine existing organizational efforts.

Transforming “rape culture” has become an increasingly popular strategy in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape of 2012. This approach is visible in media commentary about India’s “traditional” culture, satirical videos such as Rape: It’s Your Fault, and awareness building campaigns, such as Breakthrough’s efforts to “make violence against women unacceptable.” I have discussed elsewhere why the cultural turn in organizational efforts is dangerous in post-colonial, developing countries (Roychowdhury 2013). To summarize one of the main issues, cultural interventions are based on a number of assumptions that are tenuously linked to empirical data. These assumptions include the idea that sexual violence occurs because it is culturally “acceptable” and that certain cultures are more violent than others. The limited survey data we have available indicates, however, that on average, Indian women are less vulnerable to sexual violence than women in other countries. According to the Demographic Household Survey, 9% of Indian women have experienced violence versus 18.3% of American women (NFHS 2006). But to what extent these numbers emerge from “cultural” differences largely resides on guesswork. Continue reading “A call to knowledge: Let’s gather more data before rushing to action”

How Does India’s Surrogacy Market Thrive Despite being called the “Rent-a-Womb” Industry?

By Sharmila Rudrappa and Caitlyn Collins

Today India has become a major hub for commercial surrogacy with clients from around the world arriving to hire working-class Indian women to become pregnant through in-vitro fertilization. Infertility agencies charge clients $25,000 to $45,000 and pay surrogate mothers roughly $4,000 to $6,000 for their labor. These same services in the United States are estimated at $80,000 to $120,000. The massive costs of commercial surrogacy in the United States and legal restrictions against gay parents in countries such as Israel, for example, have fueled a surge in demand for reproductive services in countries such as India and Mexico where women are paid far less for surrogacy.

Despite appellations such as “baby factory,” “back-womb” services, “rent-a-womb” industry, and “life factory,” surrogacy in India is thriving. How do surrogacy businesses continue to attract clients to India in spite of the circulation of such shock-inducing labels? Drawing on interviews with eight infertility doctors, twenty intended parents, and seventy Indian surrogate mothers, as well as surrogacy blogs and media stories, we find that participants justify their economic pursuits by framing their decision to hire an Indian surrogate mother as an act of compassion and altruism on their parts. We suggest that this moral framing is not incidental, but is constitutive of transnational surrogacy.

Continue reading “How Does India’s Surrogacy Market Thrive Despite being called the “Rent-a-Womb” Industry?”