After being promised a high-flying aviation career and sinking resources into Pune’s privately run Air Hostess Academy, over 100 young tribal people find themselves stranded back where they came from. Not only have airlines refused to hire them, the state has now scrapped the course with the outrageous justification that their looks and accents worked against them. No less than Maharashtra’s minister and commissioner for tribal development have blamed the students instead of sticking up for them.
Apart from an absurd industry standard, there is no reason why the requirements should include anything beyond efficiency, fitness, grooming and smarts. The job description spans serving food and drinks, caring for the ill or elderly, enforcing safety rules and staying alert for possible emergencies. A flight aisle is not a runway — given a choice, who wouldn’t prefer a warm, competent air hostess to an icy, convent-schooled, heavily made-up stick insect? But ever since the first American “sky girls” in the ’30s, flight attendants have been wrapped in a remote glamour, no matter how tedious their service and safety duties. “Trolley dolly” is the condescending British expression for flight attendants. Singapore Airlines unabashedly sells itself through the Singapore Girl, who must be between 25 and 35, of Asian extraction, “slim and attractive, with a good complexion and warm personality”. India’s airlines have easily internalised that idea, of high-heeled, low-status paragons of femininity.
The unfairness extends beyond prejudice about tribals. Whether it is measured at the interview stage or in terms of lifetime earnings we know attractive people just have a better time at the workplace. The airlines industry only intensifies those oppressive aesthetic ideals. So even as we express shock at the Maharashtra officials claiming that tribals were “not physically appealing”, the world is unfairly stacked against those who don’t fit a very particular, whimsical convention of good looks — what feminist Naomi Wolf calls the Iron Maiden. Whether you look identifiably like a central Indian tribal or not (if there is such a thing), this beauty myth is a way of making sure women enter the workforce only in terms of a patriarchal society’s choosing. Of course, flight attendants have also been at the forefront of labour and feminist activism, suing airlines and chipping away at restrictions through union pressure, forcing the industry to revise maternity and weight rules, as well as age policies. Unpacking the layers of prejudice in Pune, however, will be a hard haul.