A shopper leaves an Abercrombie & Fitch store in London. Photo: Getty
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Model workers: The clothes shops that only hire beautiful people

The likes of American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch expect their sales staff to conform to a narrow conception of beauty, sometimes even calling them "models" so they can reject those whose faces don't fi.

If you work in a sales position, you might have a uniform. It may be a T-shirt, branded with the company’s logo. Or it might be the garments that your workplace sells, which always takes a chunk out of your pay cheque. You’ll be required to look presentable, with clean teeth and hair and clothes. However, several clothing retailers operating in Britain - including American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Burberry - take their required standards of appearance much further.

Tom* started to work for Burberry in 2012. Before he was offered a sales position on the shop floor, he was photographed. Snaps of his face, profile and full body were attached to his CV. During training he describes a “constant stress on appearance, being fresh-faced and clean-cut”. His work guide contained an appearance manual, with rules about hair, facial hair, make-up and glasses. He says “there were many incidents in-store where sales associates were told to wear more make-up and go home to wash their hair or shave their beards. One memory that sticks in my mind was when the womenswear manager joked that if her saleswomen put on weight then she would send them to work for menswear”. Tom worked in womenswear and noted that all his sales colleagues were slim, tall and conventionally attractive. He occasionally returns to the store to see old workmates and adds that women are now required to wear heels for the majority of the day and trousers are banned. (Burberry was approached for comment on this article, but has yet to respond.)

An internal email leaked to Gawker in 2010 outlines the strict personal grooming standards expected from American Apparel sales staff. The guide stipulates that “makeup is to be kept to a minimum – please take this very seriously” and that having a fringe is “not part of the direction we’re moving in”. Another rule is that “hair must be kept your natural colour” and “long, healthy, natural hair” is encouraged, meaning that “excessive blow-drying” is banned. There are notes on mascara, eyeliner, eyeshadow, blusher, foundation, lip gloss, and eyebrow plucking. 

Liquid foundation is banned, so you have to show your skin imperfections every day that you work in store. If you’re a female with short hair, you won’t be hired at American Apparel. It doesn’t fit in with their image. If you dye your hair, you won’t be working at American Apparel. You get the idea.

According to the leaked memo, “American Apparel is a retailer that celebrates natural beauty. We encourage employees to feel comfortable in their natural skin and natural state”. The word "natural" is cropping up quite a lot here. I can only surmise that by ‘natural’ they mean ‘born this way’. There are always some who fit in better with what we, as a society, believe conventional ‘natural beauty’ to be than others, which makes the "everyone is naturally beautiful" argument completely meaningless. American Apparel’s appearance standards eradicate personal expression and could encourage discrimination against women of colour, epitomised by the statement of a former manager, who was told to “find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair” and turn away “trashy” black women who applied for sales positions.

An anonymous contributor to xojane described her experiences of working for American Apparel in 2012. She wrote “we turned away a lot of competent people, based on the fact that they had too many piercings or just didn’t quite look the part – that is, thin, well groomed and conventionally attractive”. This doesn’t seem like a particularly sound business strategy. Surely the best qualified and most competent people should be hired for the position they’re interested in?

The logic behind these appearance standards is that they are aspirational. It's the same logic which is behind fashion advertisements that use tall, thin, beautiful models to sell clothes. In places like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel, the lines between selling the clothes and modelling the clothes have become so blurred that doing your job properly has taken a backseat in favour of looking a certain way. This devalues the labour and skills involved in retail work. Retail is not modelling; it’s not about wearing clothes and posing in them. It’s about treating customers with respect, helping customers find what they’re looking for, and making them feel comfortable and welcome while shopping. Having a piercing or dyed hair or plucked eyebrows doesn’t have any impact on how well you’re able to do this.

Rosie, a former Abercrombie & Fitch employee in Florida, recalls that “once when I was working, a girl who wasn't the ‘Abercrombie look’ (she was black, and not wearing preppy clothes) came in and filled out an application, which my manager then tossed into the trash without even glancing at it after she left”. She says “we were instructed not to be too helpful, not to approach the customers when they were walking around the store” and welcoming staff at the front of the shop were told to talk about fun, aspirational things like where they were going on Spring Break. Rosie states unequivocally that “exclusivity and sales were tied together” adding “isn't that the whole brand? Sexy, all-American white teenagers?”

Abercrombie & Fitch’s UK sales staff are referred to as “models” on the application section of their website. If you’re not a model, you’re part of the “impact” team (they fill shelves and work in the stockroom). The company was taken to employment tribunal in 2009 by Riam Dean, a former employee who was forced to work in the London store’s stockroom because she was born with the lower part of her arm missing. This didn’t fit in with A&F’s “look policy”. American Abercrombie & Fitch employees have also filed lawsuits against the company for refusing to allow them to wear the hijab while they work in-store.

In the UK, it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the grounds of age (unless the job legally requires you to be of a certain age, for example if it involves serving alcohol), sex, religion, gender (including gender reassignment), race, disability, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and marriage. Employment Discrimination laws in the United States protect employees and prospective employees from discrimination based on race, sex, religion, physical disability, age, and national origin.

Discrimination - defined as bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment - is not illegal unless it is related specifically to race, age, or gender. This, however, doesn’t make the practices of certain clothing retailers any less distasteful.

Clothing companies like American Apparel are able to hire staff according to appearance-based prejudices that would be virtually unheard of for other kinds of sale positions. This championing of homogeneity is merely an extension of the worst values of fashion. It taps into that sense of "not good enough", "must be better", "maybe buying the clothes will help" that fashion advertisements are so adept at creating.

The narrow beauty ideals favoured by these clothing brands are both exclusionary and deeply boring. Tall, skinny, white people wearing nice clothes? It’s been done. Next.

*name has been changed

Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist and full-time copywriter. She blogs about feminism, fashion and mental health, and tweets @harriepw.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.