Have you seen that ad with the naked flight attendants yet? (If you’re so inclined, it’s here, and it’s SFW.) The advertisement, for a travel company based in Kazakhstan, caused an uproar due to its tacky portrayal of flight attendants wearing nothing but pouty lips and a hat placed over their lady gardens. Many called for a boycott of the company, Chocotravel, who later issued a tepid apology and a second ad featuring naked male pilots to try to counterbalance the first. (Oh, Chocotravel…you really went all in on the whole gender stereotype thing, didn’t you?)
What’s shocking to me isn’t the content of the ad but the reaction to it. While I agree that it’s tasteless to the core, it really doesn’t deviate from plenty of other sexist things that pop up constantly regarding my profession. Late last year, travel site Trippy.com harvested photos from LinkedIn of flight attendants, who had not volunteered them, and asked their users to rank airlines by the attractiveness of their crews. Trippy.com removed the post after a very public lashing. Spirit Airlines had a score of “sexy” ads, this one inviting flyers to…uh…check out their southbound fares. Then, of course, there’s VietJet Airlines, with their bikini-clad crews, who recently went out of business as the public turned their back on what they felt was a cheesy, misogynistic, gimmicky venture.
Just kidding. The low-fare Vietnamese airline is a runaway success, and the CEO just became the first female billionaire in Southeast Asia.
How are we still here, dealing regularly with the degrading portrayals of flight attendants? Of course, the coquettish restyle of the ‘stewardess’ role famously took place in the 60s. When airlines were strictly regulated, fares were no longer a point to attract customers with, so they went with the lowest-hanging fruit to sell seats: sex. Advertising executive Mary Wells Lawrence is widely credited with the creation of the “swinging stewardess,” which was developed for previously failing airline Braniff, but other eagerly latched onto by the other major airlines as the so-called “Jet Age” took off. Uniforms were now revealing and risqué, and female flight attendants’ appearances were monitored more closely than ever – with those found to be over the weight limits promptly suspended or terminated. Stewardesses were regularly propositioned and harassed physically as well as verbally. Ads became horrifying, with the famed National Airlines “Fly Me” campaign being perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back, but many others were just as bad. Take a gander at this gem from Continental, where not only is sex used to sell but a rare male flight attendant is mentioned…as the one in charge, of course.
The rise of feminism in the 70s, a part of which was inspired by the disturbing turn airline marketing had taken, did help to erode some of the, as Gloria Steinem described it, “geisha-like” requirements and perceptions, yet some continue to fester to this day. While I may not be weighed every time I report for duty, I regularly listen to non-airline acquaintences tell me about a fat or old flight attendant who’d worked their flights, who’d done nothing to warrant their complaints other than being older or heavy-set. When I don’t react with sympathy for having to struggle through a flight not staffed by Victoria’s Secret models, they then claim their concern was safety-related all along, claiming that the flight attendant in question was likely too old/overweight to conduct emergency duties. (Yeah. Okay.) Even the CEO of Qatar Airways, while promoting his airline at a press conference, called American-based flight attendants “grandmothers” while bragging that the average Qatar crewmember is 26 years old. Keep in mind that all airlines, all around the world, require flight attendants to attend yearly job requalification training, proving to instructors using government-mandated criteria, that they can perform all medical, evacuation and security procedures in the required amount of time. There goes that excuse.
So when we talk about this naked flight attendant ad, we aren’t talking about some cheeky attention-grabbing ad spot for a travel company. We are talking about a continually perpetuated image that seems nearly impossible to shed. It’s having to pretend that I forgot the name of my crew hotel for the night because stalkers follow us to them. It’s the hurt of having to hear passenger snickers or whispers when my friends and very qualified coworkers walk by wearing some extra weight or some grey in their hair. It’s wondering what the change in perception will be like one day when my wrinkles deepen or if I start to give away my love of quesadillas via a wider waistline. It’s not being taken seriously when I have a valid concern or opinion. It’s being assumed to be promiscuous or a party girl simply because I don’t spend every night at home in my own bed.
The outrage at the Chocotravel ad is valid and it’s comforting, and hopefully it causes people to re-evaluate this dated idea of who flight attendants are and what they ought to look like. We wear clothes, some have wrinkles and cellulite, and can all evacuate an airplane in ninety seconds – not to mention make a mean vodka tonic in moderate turbulence. That’s pretty cool on its own, isn’t it?