Commercializing Women's Bodies: Exploitative Marketing and the Violation of Gender Justice

This article explores how universalized workplace dress codes contribute to the commodification of women’s bodies and perpetuate oppressive systems.

Capitalism has long profited from the commodification of women's bodies. Globalization and market economy have established and imposed a set of universal beauty standards, often disregarding cultural and socioeconomic specificities. This is evident in the practices of cosmetics companies, which have standardized beauty norms by claiming the ability to restore youth, vitality, and slimness. This system relies on the massive spending and consumption of people who are trying to conform to these unrealistic beauty standards.

Over time, this so-called magical beauty formula, offered by capitalist companies, solidifies into a stereotypical image of “a woman's” beauty. I insist on analyzing the nuances behind the usage of the term "woman" as a singular entity. This individualization highlights the colonial aspect of the capitalist system, which deliberately defines what counts as beautiful and what counts as ugly. The ugly, in this sense, is often attributed to non-Western cultural characteristics, making the stereotypical image of beauty an individualized image of a specific woman, and thus, inherently racist.

The normalization of certain beauty standards was not aimed at profiting through consumption alone. It extended to the objectification of women's bodies in various fields of work, turning women's bodies into commodities and sources of profit in and of themselves. Cosmetics and fashion companies have long used beautiful young women to attract attention and promote their products, a tactic which has infiltrated job ads in various industries, such as airlines and tourism companies. Such ads openly call for "attractive" women employees, specifying particular dress codes and standards of embellishment.

Politicized Elegance: International Dress Codes in the Workplace

Harvard Business Review, a global platform associated with Harvard Business School, defines "workplace dress codes" as the standards set by companies based on the nature of their work and how attire contributes to presenting a professional image. For instance, banks and similar institutions often require formal attire to project a professional demeanor to clients. However, we often overlook the roots and implications of these standards. Workplace dress codes might seem objective and apolitical, established merely to regulate professions and maintain professionalism. But, defining what is "professional" ultimately determines what is "unprofessional", perpetuating thus racist, discriminatory, and exclusionary standards. Such regulations maintain a colonial power structure that excludes individuals whose appearances do not conform to the white man’s perception of "professionalism".

While these standards dictate formal attire for some women, they simultaneously restrict access for many others whose culture and values do not align with these expectations. Certain dress requirements, such as the adoption of dresses and skirts as formal attire or the prohibition of hijabs in certain jobs, exacerbated societal divisions between different communities. The solution may not lie in an opposite scenario, which could also be exploitative; for enforcing any standards often result in the imposition of stereotypes that exclude those who do not conform. This capitalist system, coupled with exploitation, works systematically to define the nature of professionalism based on traits associated with "sophistication" and "civilization."

Beyond the class perspective, these standards play a significant role in enforcing and reinforcing gender injustice by defining what is "moral", and consequently, what is "immoral" – thus equating morality with professionalism. In both cases, there is a deliberate effort to sexualize and objectify women's bodies.

Swinging Between Objectivity and Subjectivity in Workplace Rules

Women flight attendants and employees of Arab airlines have reported that their companies enforce mandatory uniforms and embellishment requirements, such as hair lengths and styles, nail polish color, and the mandatory use of makeup. Despite being Arab themselves, these companies have actively worked on erasing certain Arab identity signifiers, such as the hijab or curly hair. Additionally, companies have resorted to reassign an employee if her weight exceeded the specified standard, requiring her to lose weight to return to her primary position.

These companies ensure compliance by checking employees’ appearances before boarding the plane. Employees who do not comply with the regulations would accordingly face penalties, such as being prohibited from boarding the plane or having part of their monthly salary deducted. These practices highlight the power imbalance between employers and employees, where any deviation from the rules is met with threats and coercion, making it difficult for women to maintain their already scarce job opportunities.

However, these rules are not static; they are manipulated by management according to their companies’ needs and profit-driven goals. For example, some airlines allow flight attendants to wear the hijab, as seen in Egyptian airlines, while some hotels limit job opportunities for hijab-wearing women to administrative departments only. These hotels would not allow hijab-wearing employees to work in positions that require direct interaction with guests, as wearing the hijab violates the dress code imposed on those positions.

Personal appearance and autonomy over one’s own body are freedoms exercised within different personal considerations and preferences. When individuals lose the ability to choose, they lose their autonomy. The pervasive influence of capitalism on women’s bodies in the workplace extends to their personal lives, dictating their diets, attire, and appearance. This hegemony subjects women to stress and various forms of violence, especially within patriarchal societies prevalent in most Arab countries. In these societies, sexual harassment is frequently attributed to women's clothing choices and their defiance to "cultural norms," leading to a greater chance of women employees facing harassment when they adhere to company dress codes deemed "revealing." Instead of holding the companies accountable for imposing unprofessional attire and regulations on women employees, these societies tend to shift the responsibility and the blame onto the women themselves.

Such a system, through its exploitative modality, lays bare the complicity of patriarchal societal constructs, which place the burden of sexual violence and harassment on women. It uses false justifications, such as blaming women for being harassed due to their loud voice, walking alone at night, or their attire, to deflect blame from the true culprit: the patriarchal system. Some men exploit this complicity to control and dominate women and their life choices, using systematic patriarchal power to subjugate women under the guise of protection. Consequently, sexual harassment of women in workplaces that impose specific dress codes becomes normalized, as these women are perceived to be violating the boundaries set by the patriarchal hegemony.

The Personal is Political

Profit remains the primary driver for companies in capitalist economies, even at the expense of commodifying women's bodies and subjugating them to stereotyping, discrimination, and violence in the labor market. This stereotyping leads to the erosion of women's rights, reducing them to exploitable laborers whose rights can be negotiated away. This, in turn, paves the way for wage discrimination, denies them promotion opportunities, and serves as justification for their exposure to violence, harassment, and sexual exploitation.

In patriarchal societies, women are considered as mere tools used by cronies of patriarchy, to assert their power and validate their masculinities by imposing restrictions and describing women as the weaker gender. – an image perpetuated by stereotyping women's roles and personal characteristics. It is the same patriarchal society that remains silent about the commodification of women's bodies for the sake of boosting sales.

Breaking the cycle of “stereotyping-commodification-exploitation” begins with dismantling the cultural and societal frameworks that control women's bodies. It is crucial to denounce the commodification of women's bodies and the imposition of discriminatory conditions in the workplace that restrict their autonomy. However, achieving an inclusive and equitable work environment necessitates understanding how capitalist and patriarchal systems infiltrate our personal lives, turning personal matters into public ones with a specific agenda—objectifying, commodifying, and exploiting the personal.

Gender justice is a fundamental struggle that seeks to challenge the structural foundations of exploitative systems. It aims to disrupt systems that perpetuate the notion of women's bodies being inferior.

(1) Based on six interviews conducted with flight attendants and employees in airlines and travel agencies.

Mona Ezzat is an expert consultant on economic, social and gender empowerment in a number of international organizations and has many articles and research papers published at the national and Arab levels.

This article has been revised and refined by Assil Fares to deepen its feminist analysis.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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