It’s been over 50 years since the “Coffee, Tea or Me?” days of flying, when businessmen were openly invited to ogle the lithe, young, unattached stewardesses bedecked in hot pants and go-go boots. The airlines marketed their crews as hot young things who came as part of the experience. Stewardesses, sick of weigh-ins, harassment and objectification, eventually fought back against their airlines and eventually put a halt to the sexist portrayal of their chosen career.
But how far have things really come? Not very, if the internet is any indicator.
Travel site Trippy.com recently published a list of airlines with the most attractive crew, and not only did it manage to be offensive by sole virtue of existing, but it was also incredibly creepy; the site actually tracked down the LinkedIn accounts of a number of flight attendants from each airline (and given that these images were from LinkedIn and not voluntarily submitted, this was probably done without consent) and created composite images which were then used to rank the collective beauty at each airline. The posting has since been removed, but nonetheless left many alarmed.
Did you know there is a World’s Most Beautiful Stewardess competition? It’s held by a Hong Kong organization called the “World Air Stewardess Association (WASA)”, whose stated purpose according to their website is to support “the overall development and interest protection of professional stewardesses, composed of the females, professional groups, relative people, and groups by willingness who are engaged in, have been engaged in, or are expecting to engage in aviation services in the world.” (A noble cause, I’m sure.) However, you’d be hard-pressed to locate many other priorities for “the females” other than beauty and fashion.
Liu Miaomiao of Shenzhen Airlines currently holds the enviable title of “Most Beautiful Stewardess”. She is inarguably beautiful, but that’s not all! Of course, WASA would not be so shallow as to judge a book by her cover. The Shanghaiist also tells this riveting story of her prowess with passengers:
“In the hectic world of Chinese air travel, Liu has become a calm voice of reason. One time, a flight from Beijing was delayed, causing passengers to lose their temper, but Liu was apparently able to calm them down using her smile.”
A cartoon bird then landed on her shoulder, singing the sweetest melody anyone had ever heard, and all began crying gumdrop tears for having given her any trouble.
I really don’t mean to diminish the career abilities of Ms. Liu, as I am sure she really is a fantastic flight attendant. But these skills are essential to the position – a good tone set by cabin crew and rapport with customers can quite often have them declaring an hours-delayed flight the best one they’ve ever had. And this is practiced worldwide, every day, and successful regardless of physical attributes. While there is something to be said for maintaining a professional demeanor and appearance, that goes for both genders and has nothing to do with age, complexion, etc. It’s a proven fact that the professional and well-groomed appearance of a flight crew helps to develop faith in passengers that they’re in good hands in an emergency, and this is why I do see a good reason for adhering to the strict appearance standards for airline crews. I would also be lying if I didn’t enjoy the glamorous side of it as well, but again, this has more to do with the uniforms and professionalism, not sex appeal.
All of this is really is a foolhardy way of trying to take things back to a supposed golden age that really didn’t exist. Sure, the jet age stewardess in a micro-dress and pale pink lipstick leaning lustfully over the orange fabric seat of a rapt businessman looks absolutely pleased to be there in the advertising, but the reality of it was not always as sexy as it seemed. According to former flight attendant Paula Kane, author of Sex Objects In The Skies: A Personal Account of the Stewardess Rebellion, and others who worked in that era, that was not the case:
“What is that pretty young stewardess thinking as she walks gracefully down the aisle to give you your third drink? Is she anxious to ‘Make You Feel Good All Over’, as much of the airlines’ advertising says?” Instead, the reality was more as how you’d imagine, according to Kane. “…if she is a stewardess who has been flying for some time, the chances are very good she is only hoping that you won’t make a pass at her or get drunk and make a scene.”
This works in the reverse as well – when I hear complaints about an airline having poor service, it is often the looks of the crew that are added in to season the story a bit. She (you’ll almost never hear these comments made of a man) is always old, or fat, or ugly. Last year, Delta flight attendants received negative feedback personally, and a lot of the comments centered on age and weight.
So we need to get out of this mindset of the sexy, young coquette-in-the-sky. It’s just not a reality, and when we are judged solely on our looks rather than our service or intelligence, it short-changes us. How quickly and effectively evacuate an aircraft, or respond to an in-flight medical emergency, or even just make a passenger feel welcome does not require symmetrical features or a flat stomach.
And, let’s be honest – those that go rating airlines by their staff’s physical appearances would probably not want us judging theirs.