Sunday, 13 June 2010

When makeup won't work

I was reading this article, about a certain Debrahlee Lorenzana, who despite a penchant for cosmetic surgery, laments: “Are you saying just because I look this way genetically, that this should be a curse for me?” She alleges that Citibank fired her for being "too distracting". Her rightful use of polished makeup and fitted clothes, she speculates, were the cause of their unease. She has made her point via, paradoxically, a series of seductive shots in The Village Voice, culminating in a 26 page spread! One lawyer's blog posed the question, "Did curvaceous New York banker Debrahlee Lorenzana get fired for being too sexy? Or do you think, as I do, that her lawsuit over it is merely a publicity ploy for a modelling career?"

This fraught topic, of how attractive a woman can be before it pools into 'unprofessionalism' reminds me of the recent tweet by the makeup artist Jenny Patinkin, who incidentally I only just realised actually read my piece on her! (due to being effectively ostracized from social networking as no facebook account nor twitter account for me, I only just saw this as I was checking for her latest gems). Jenny Patinkin had offhandedly observed that "Smokey eyes + office job = not being taken seriously. Would u hire anyone w/makeup like Kim Kardashian? Smokey is 2 distracting 4 work."

Prior to that comment, I had never considered it. My logic was, as long as the colours are neutral, anything goes. But the truth is, there is an unwritten rule.

I was reminded of the case won not that long ago in UK. Amitjo Kajla, a young and pretty prison guard, argued that she had been bullied for wearing makeup and having her uniform tailored to fit, and that being caught within the "macho" prison attitude had effectively resulted in her unfair dismissal. She settled out of court. Officers had defended their postion by insisting her makeup and outfits could pose a danger to her safety:  "When Miss Kajla came to the centre she was wearing a very tight fitted v-neck woolen jumper - far too revealing in my opinion.'I said it was not appropriate and all the prisoners were ringing bells to get her attention.' Michael Doolan, acting governor at the time of the incident, told the tribunal Miss Kajla's appearance was 'overwhelming' in terms of make-up. He said she wore heavy eye-liner, mascara, glossy lipstick and had rouge cheeks. Miss Kajla[...]toned down her make-up after an informal chat with prison governor".

Amitjo Kajla bought lighter makeup but wrote in her diary: "Make-up is me, I don't want to change me". When accused of going to work "glammed up", she, like Debrahlee Lorenzana, cited her upbringing as the catalyst:  "I was taught by my parents to take a pride in my appearance."

Personally I am pleased that this right to use makeup, even in the harshest and most inglorious of environments, was upheld. In the Daily Mail's coverage as well as other tabloids, I noticed the comments were overridingly hostile, insinuating that by wearing her habitual makeup and nose stud, she was showing a flagrant disregard for the status quo. But that is the Daily Mail. Although Amitjo Kajla maintained that by being friendly and behaving as normal, she was treating the offenders with respect, it is obvious that when dealing with volatile offenders, one must be extra vigilant. However, that shouldn't mean that she has to eliminate her self-confidence altogether. Makeup can be worn for one's own wellbeing, not necessarily for others. Her safety as a prison officer shouldn't be compromised depending on her attractiveness, and furthermore why should the inmates get the privilege of dictating the prison staff's makeup regimen? With so much bureaucracy in the public sector, which allows prisoners to hold officers to ransom via various human rights, this trend should not be exacerbated by co-workers.

Another recent case won was a disabled Law student working at Abercrombie & Fitch, who succesfully claimed that the stores "look policy" was used as an excuse to keep her hidden away in the stockroom. This followed a recently settled a £25 million lawsuit brought by nine former employees, all from ethnic minority groups, who similarly said that they were forced to work in stockrooms or on night shifts because they did not fit the Abercrombie "look". Tellingly, the case was won on the grounds that by wearing a cardigan to conceal the join between her skin and the prosthetic arm, the "look" was compromised, and not by being the fact of her being disabled. This scathing article charts Abercrombie &Fitch's various PR disasters.

Again within the US retail sector, American Apparel has been exposed for its shallow entrance policies. Making a mockery of any notions of the American Dream and confusing an aspirational image with being elitist and even racist, the store has been repeatedly chastised by Gawker, who managed to leak an internal memo where it was stipulated that all job applicants must send in a full body shot.

American Apparel concede, "We do screen, but not for beauty. What we look for is personal style [...] The line consists of a tremendous number of colors that are more like art supplies than fashion, so when we're hiring, one of the things we look for is an ability to take our products, make them exciting, and show how cool they can look, which doesn't have much to do with just being pretty."

- Yes that's about as convincing as A&F hiding the disabled worker away because her cardigan was offensive. And how pretentious does it sound to call your clothes "more like art supplies than fashion"?! Please!

Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel both have strict guidelines on hair and makeup; for A&F this means minimal, natural makeup and for American Apparel similarly makeup and hair is policed. One hiring manager recalls being instructed:"Try to find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair, you know?"

American Apparel is currently struggling and tilting dangerously towards bankruptcy, although it has found investment for now.

I understand the need for good presentation, and perhaps that does mean not wearing lipgloss or glitter, but I fail to see why even a (ok subtle) smokey brown eye and nude lips can't be acceptable, whatever your job is. The fact that these chains force their staff to be treated as models rather than sales staff, would deter me from buying there. And indeed has even been read as a major contributing factor to AA's demise.

I know certain sectors have different allowances, i.e working at a funeral parlour vs working at a Sephora, but surely there must be a universal happy medium?  How much makeup is too much? And is it ever fair to constrict makeup? 

What do You think??


  1. Thanks for this brilliant post!
    I think the whole subject is disgusting. I can’t understand how in 2010 they are still people judging employees depending on what they look like.
    I also remember the woman wearing a scarf and working at a hair salon who was also fired based on apparently something else and it was all over the news. I guess that’s religious but it has to do with appearance. I’m sure she was good at her job anyway.
    I guess this is not entirely new either. Discrimination has been around for centuries but I guess it’s now politically and morally incorrect. I find it brilliant that all these cases come to light and we all know about them. Shame on these companies!

  2. @Mercedes- Ms Purple Make-up
    Yes I found several cases about headscarves, but as you say that is religious observance and not remotely about personal styling. Regarding your other point, yes the law blog I cited made an interesting observation: whereas in the past there was 'no such thing as bad publicity', now with the internet keeping facts fresh at our fingertips, any bad publicity really is just that! xx

  3. Great post! A&F are so pretentious! I NEVER buy anything from there for that reason but you have just validated my belief. With regards to makeup, I remember reading somewhere that women who wear makeup to work are more likely to get promoted so it's all a little bit confusing. I worked in an office where a co-worker wore blue smokey eyes and no one ever said anything adverse to her. I really do think it's a judgement call.