August 30, 2021

“The Right Look”: Emotional and Aesthetic Labor in Ballet

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos

It is no secret that jobs are not what they used to be. While Karl Marx’s disturbing depiction of alienated and lifeless factory workers in the mid nineteenth century may still ring true to some, our working conditions have arguably only gotten worse. The so-called “gig economy,” in which steady jobs are replaced with task-based independent contract work, has taken a strong hold in our society. Corporations like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart are making immense profits by hiring only independent contract workers (rather than employees), who are ineligible for benefits and exempt from minimum wage requirements – no matter how many hours these independent contractors actually work. Their argument, of course, is that limiting independent contract work would decrease flexibility and jeopardize the quirks of modernity we all hold near and dear – like ride sharing or food delivery .  

As our economy has expanded and morphed, so has scholars’ understanding of what “labor” actually means. In 1983, Arlie Hochschild famously published The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling in which she details the advent of “emotional labor” in the growing service economy. According to Hochschild, emotional labor is the work we do (usually daily, on the job) to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (20).

In other words, the work we do to keep potential and existing customers happy – such as smiling, being pleasant, feigning excitement – is a distinct form of labor (and one which corporations are reliant upon to make profits). Scholars have also identified another and related form of work, referred to as “aesthetic labor.” Primarily present in the retail industry, “aesthetic labor” includes any requirements or encouragements employers make about their “workers’ deportment, style, accent, voice, and attractiveness.”

A well-publicized example of aesthetic labor comes from a class action lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund against retail brand Abercrombie & Fitch in 2003. The lawsuit alleged that as part of the brand’s maintenance of the “right look” among their employees, they were actively discriminating against minorities in the hiring process. Abercrombie & Fitch ultimately agreed to a settlement, giving $40 million to both rejected job applicants and employees who had been discriminated on the job.

To many scholars familiar with the concept of aesthetic labor, the revelation of these practices did not come as a shock. Preferential hiring based on looks is rife within the retail industry, and Abercrombie & Fitch is but one example of how societal standards dictate that whiteness and upper-middle class deportment are the most desirable traits. In fact, they ways in which employers demand aesthetic labor to be carried out by workers is a reflection of our ingrained societal hierarchies based on race, class, gender, and sexuality (to name just a few).

Of course, aesthetic labor and the discrimination that comes with it exists well outside of the retail space. While often overlooked, people employed in the arts who actively use their bodies in their work – e.g. dancers, music artists – have to perform aesthetic labor to an unprecedented extent. Because of this, as expected, these work sites are also often rife with discriminatory practices based on race, gender, and attractiveness. Last summer, a group of members of the ballet company at the Paris Opera signed an open letter calling for the Opera to end its practice of casting white ballet dancers in blackface for roles in place of actual dancers of color. In response, the Opera promised it would not only end the practices but ensure to recruit more members of color into the ballet company. Far from an isolated incident across ballet companies across the world, these issues highlight the highly problematic racial dynamic in ballet and opera productions, which have historically been exclusive and predominantly white, upper-class institutions.

In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, Sekani Robinson investigates how black women in ballet in the U.S. are navigating their workplace and the aesthetic labor they have to perform to conform to ideals of whiteness. Among the women Robinson interviewed, many detailed experiences of both subtle and not-so-subtle racism at work, such as the difficulty of finding ballet shoes in colors other than white or off-white.

As a result of the dominant ideals of whiteness present in ballet, Robinson finds that black women are forced to perform both aesthetic and emotional labor at once: managing their appearance according to white standards as well as their feelings of lack of belonging at the same time. Robinson thus argues that when using a racialized lens, emotional labor and aesthetic labor are not distinct concepts or forms of labor, as I previously discussed; rather, for black women, they are deeply intertwined. The article concludes by describing how, unfortunately, these pressures lead to low retention rates for black women in ballet (for the few who are even given a chance in the first place).

What other examples of aesthetic labor can you think of? Provide your responses in the comments below.

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