Daily, I feel helplessness, anger, frustration and fear that maybe I am the only one that knows this company understands women as plantation owners understood coolies, as bodies to use and control, and persons to disrespect and dismiss, because it’s good for profits. — Gabrielle Hosein
There was a time when feminists, from the Caribbean and beyond, picketed beauty contests. They protested the sexualisation and objectification of women, the reduction of women’s worth to their physical attractiveness, the narrow, ageist, heterosexist and racialised standards of attractiveness.
That time has come and gone.
But as with all things of merit, a throwback is sometimes essential.
Can we talk about the economics and (gender) politics of aesthetic and sexualised labour– of entering a competition to be crowned the calendar girl of a local beer? The fitness regime, diet, clothing, hair and other services needed to put your best face and crotch forward do not come cheap. But hey, regardless of what kind of work we do we all make some personal investments in our future, right?
But shouldn’t we question the trade-offs and the pay off? Is modeling a swimsuit that is not really a swimsuit worth a shot at the prize money? Is modelling a swimsuit that is not really a swimsuit worth explicit photos of you living on forever on the internet and out of your control? Isn’t it just as feminist to acknowledge that women make choices to participate in these competitions as it is to question the context and conditions that make such choices not only possible but seem like positive career options?
If we think of promotions work as work, and it is work, what responsibility do employers have to the (usually) young women that they employ and dress in very little while making tolerance of sexual harassment part of the job? What are their ethical responsibilities in requiring such aesthetic and sexualised labour from young women?
Recently I learnt a lot about aesthetic and sexualised labour from a young woman with first-hand experience. She outlined how recruiters sought out college/university students for this work, using education as a proxy for class. She argued that they produced a working environment filled with sexual harassment, no pay for overtime hours worked and a low hourly rate. When asked why students took those jobs she mentioned that some used the money to pay fees or buy books and that as a marketing student she was hoping for some experience in the field. She also repeated a familiar tale of the racialised and class-based segregation of the market for “promotions girls.” Tall, slim, light-skinned, long weave-wearing late-teens- to- early-twenties women were preferred for “upscale” events. Alcoholic beverages thought to have a wider consumer base among working-class black Caribbean men opted for “promo girls” with larger breasts and behinds. Whether upscale or lowdown the skimpy dress code remained the same so too did the expectation that workers flirt with customers. At some events, a is bodyguard hired to “protect” the young women at work, though even being touched by or dancing with male patrons is not outside of the expectations of the job.
There are standards for sex work that seek to ensure a safe working environment and protections of workers’ rights. When young women aren’t even sure that the work in which they are engaged is sex work how can they negotiate effectively or even claim ownership of their image and determine how sexually explicit photographs are distributed?
Daily, I feel sick that the men and women at Carib Brewery put their minds and their money to so deliberately put down capable, hardworking and flourishing women and girls who only ask for an equal chance to aspire and achieve. Daily, I turn the blame inward, against myself, for trying to get us home amidst the afternoon traffic, like everyone else, rather than destroying those signs however I can because my baby girl deserves more than these people with power will allow her. Daily, I feel helplessness, anger, frustration and fear that maybe I am the only one that knows this company understands women as plantation owners understood coolies, as bodies to use and control, and persons to disrespect and dismiss, because it’s good for profits.
I want to end with Gabrielle’s words of the helplessness, anger and frustration you feel as women’s bodies are used by corporations with our complicity and at great cost to ensuring that our societies recognise women as the complex, human beings that we are; and not as faceless “brown tings” to be exploited for alcohol sales.