Home Political science Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism
Making over Beauty Service Labour
The making over of the hair stylist as an aesthetic entrepreneur also conceals the social and educational inequalities that have historically drawn mainly working class women and women of colour to the field. Just as scholarship on cultural and creative labour can help demystify the glam- ourisation of salon work, historical accounts of women’s beauty service labour are helpful for unpacking the intertwined gender, race and class politics of this development. As many historians have shown, cosmetology offered one of the earliest opportunities for white working class women and women of colour to earn an independent living. From the beginning, Julie Willett documents, salon workers were entrenched in a ‘pink collar ghetto where hazardous working conditions, low wages, and long hours were common’ (2000, p. 4). Yet, hairdressing also offered women a ‘meaningful work culture’ (Willett 2000, p. 35). Like dressmaking and millinery trades, it presented an opportunity for creativity and an ‘artisanal sense of self rarely associated with the realm of women’s wage work’ (Willett 2000, p. 36). Beauty shops owned by women were also among the earliest avenues for female entrepreneurialism. The recent glamouri- sation of salon work through an appropriation of the ‘artistic mentality’ (McGee 2005) is not a complete break from the past, but a radical rewriting under neoliberal logics. Cast as aesthetic entrepreneurs who love what they do and may become rich and famous, stylists are shown to embrace the aestheticisation, flexibility, creativity and self-enterprising required of postindustrial workers in an industry that is assumed to have overcome gender segregation.
The symbolic de-gendering of the salon has been crucial to its positioning as a creative industry. While salon work is still feminised—84 percent of individuals in personal appearance occupations are women, compared to 47 percent of employed individuals in the overall US workforce (Professional Beauty Association 2014)—heterosexual men are highly visible as aesthetic entrepreneurs. While gay men have long been considered ‘style mavens’ due to their perceived association with hip urban style and femininity (Lewis 2008), glamorous male stylists who flaunt their heterosexuality are now commonplace in media culture. Unlike barbers, they exude stylishness, work in aestheticised settings and have female as well as male clients. At a time when male-coded industrial jobs are declining in the West and men are moving into service fields, the male stylist mediates and buffers the ‘feminisation of work’. The Salon made a point to feature heterosexual men as trendsetting stylists, conveying the idea that the modern aesthetic entrepreneur has transcended the ghetto of women’s work. Likewise, the US show Blow Out followed a ‘defiantly straight’ male celebrity stylist who ran a posh salon in Beverly Hills, and eventually became a judge on Shear Genius, a competition to crown the ‘best hair stylist in America’.
The masculinisation of salon work has a history with implications for labour organising. As Willett points out, efforts to professionalise hairstyling were led by middle class white men, who sought to disassociate the occupation from ‘women’s work’ by casting male stylists as artists and women as ‘mere gossip mongers’ (2000, p. 5). Subsequent attempts by male barber unions to organise female hair stylists were also fraught with gender hierarchies and tensions. Many white and African American women were ambivalent about or resisted collective bargaining because they worried they would be disempowered (Willett 2000). This is not surprising, considering the gender hierarchies inherent to pro-union advocacy efforts exemplified by a 1960 American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) educational film about hair salons and barbershops. The film began by announcing that a growing number of men were choosing the ‘beautification of women as a career’. Inside a beauty salon we meet a white man in a tailored suit, whose job is to provide a ‘creative vision’ to female haircutters in lab coats. By the time the camera zooms in on a Union Shop sign, which as we were told by the narrator is a ‘symbol of good barbering,’ male takeover of salon work has been established. While collective bargaining has waned in the barber trade and the vast majority of hair salons are nonunionised, creativity is now evoked as a way to make beauty service work compatible with masculinity.
Many historians argue that early beauty shops were more than workplaces: they were social institutions that nourished female sociality and ‘community and political goals’ (Willett 2000, p. 4). For African American women especially, beauty culture was ‘tied to a wider ethical and political culture’ (Black 2004, p. 29) in which salons played a central role. Neighbourhood beauty shops served the needs of Black communities during Jim Crow and simultaneously advocated to end segregation, in some cases operating as outposts of the civil rights movement (Gill 2010; Willett 2000). While these businesses have declined as corporate chains have proliferated, the Black-owned beauty shop— like the barbershop—remains symbolically tied to a history of racial solidarity and struggle (Mukherjee 2006). This legacy is downplayed in contemporary media culture, where salon work is presented as multicultural, but a postracial mentality that assumes the aims of the civil rights have been accomplished and racial discrimination no longer exists prevails.
As Gavin Mueller (2012, np) points out, postindustrial creative work is often mediated as multicultural, as exemplified by televised talent competitions filled with ‘young diverse creative types’ set in ‘hip urban locales’. Likewise, salon work is also represented as a multicultural environment where difference is embraced and inequalities are assumed to be well in the past. Talent competitions routinely cast people of colour as registers of multicultural hipness, conveying the notion that racial discrimination (such as the treatment of New York manicurists) has no place in contemporary salon work. Likewise, the role of the Black salon in nurturing African American communities is erased by a cluster of docusoaps revolving around African American stylists including LA Hair (2012- present) and Cutting It: In the ATL (2015-present). While these productions promote diverse understandings of beauty and showcase the artistry and skill involved in styling Black women’s hair, they distance modern aesthetic entrepreneurship from any wider ethical and political agenda. While the salons featured cater to mainly African American clienteles, stylists are cast as self-enterprising individuals who are largely preoccupied with building their personal brands and achieving celebrity status. The marketing for Cutting It, which follows ‘talented,’ ‘glamorous’ and ‘headstrong’ salon owners in Atlanta, promises shifting alliances, ‘competition at its most cutthroat’ and schemes to ‘soak up every last dollar Atlanta has to offer’. LA Hair follows ‘celebrity hair’ stylist Kim Kimble, who runs an upscale Hollywood salon and claims to have A-listers like Beyonce ‘on speed dial’. Kimble’s salon is a glamorous venue for brushing up against Black actors, performers and musicians. Working there is presented as a lucky break for stargazing stylists. The chance to ‘do what you love’ while servicing celebrities and learning the ropes of self-promotion is presented as a reward onto itself (wages, tips and benefits are never mentioned).
The TV show Houston Beauty (2013-present), set at the nation’s oldest Black-owned beauty school, points to the stakes of this discourse. Franklin Beauty School was formed in 1915 by a self-made African American cosmetologist who got her start selling homemade beauty products. Besides training hairdressers who could serve the city’s African
American community, the school promoted desegregation and served as an advocacy organisation working to raise wages and improve benefits in the cosmetology field. This history is shorn from the reality programme, which casts the school as an outdated institution in which elderly African American instructors demonstrate technical skills on worn mannequins in fluorescent-lit classrooms with peeling paint. Franklin Beauty has seen better days, and despite the attempt to modernise the curriculum for the benefit of ratings by staging competitions and having the students perform pro bono ‘challenges’ like making commercials for the school, the footage presents a stark counterpoint to the posh, ‘artistic’ salons celebrated on other reality shows. Yet, even here, the glamourisation of salon work is evident. Students who drop in and out of the programme based on financial aid, and who sometimes sleep in their cars, speak about their ‘passion’ for cosmetology and their ambition to become celebrity stylists, sometimes referencing TV programmes they have seen. They have been taught by contemporary media culture that salon work is a path to a more creative, enterprising and glamorous future. While institutions like Franklin Beauty School were part of an ethical and political culture that valued collectivity, community and shared responsibility, the new mantra of aesthetic entrepreneurship dovetails neatly with the neoliberal assumption that individuals who fail to achieve a dream job have no one but themselves to blame.
This message is made especially clear on Tabatha’s Salon Takeover (2008-2011), a show that enacts the makeover as a solution to ‘failure’ in the salon industry. The premise is that most independently owned salons fail within three years of opening. Attributing this problem to the behaviour of owners and staffers, ‘expert’ Tabatha Coffey promises to turn around flagging and ‘at risk’ businesses in just a few weeks. On each episode, she targets a salon, diagnoses problems and implements changes and reforms. Salon owners are coached to ‘manage through creativity’ and stylists learn to find their passion and take ‘ownership’ of their performance and sales. Surveillance cameras are installed to document unambitious work ethics, inappropriate attitudes and other problems and ‘tough love’ is deployed to correct them. By making over those whose occupational labour underpins the makeover regime, the show brings the concept full circle. While makeovers rely on aesthetic services (such as a new haircut) to create ‘better’—that is, appropriately aestheticised and self-enterprising—citizens and workers, the impetus here is to retool the capacities of hair stylists and others who make a living in the beauty and style industries, providing the aesthetic services upon which the makeover regime depends. As we have seen, these capacities are connected to the celebration of creativity and are also integral to the postfeminist aes- theticisation of subjectivity, and the shifting demands and conditions of postindustrial labour more broadly. Billed as a creative enterprise for all, the salon—perhaps even more than the artist’s workshop—provides an ideal setting for making over the workforce through the vicarious instruction that television provides.
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