THE WORKING STIFF — By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald
July 21, 2010
From the relentless attacks on American Apparel, you might think we’re witnessing the greatest civil rights violations of our time.
At issue: The trendy fashion chain store retailer won’t let its employees pluck their eyebrows. Or wear hair gel. Or slip on gladiator sandals.
American Apparel — which has Massachusetts stores in Boston, Cambridge and Wrentham — strives for the “girl next door look” and its dress code demands that workers fit the brand. The company also unapologetically pushes the “sexually available right now look,” based on suggestive poses in its print and online advertising.
Leading the charge that AA won’t hire “uglies” is the popular gossip site Gawker.com, which has published company emails instructing managers to micromanage their employees’ hair care products:
“Please keep in mind that American Apparel is a retailer that celebrates natural beauty. We encourage employees to feel comfortable in their natural skin and natural state. This aesthetic is a part of the company image; as we do not Photoshop our advertisements and our models appear in their natural state, it’s important that this image is cohesive in the stores.”
Female employees are required to wear their hair long, keep their natural color, and avoid “excessive” blow-drying. Bangs are a big no-no. For guys, hair gels that “create stiffness and an unnatural or greasy appearance” are forbidden. Both genders are not allowed to wax or shape their eyebrows.
Gawker also has uncovered internal memos detailing how “head to toe” photos are used to hire, fire and promote AA employees. If workers are deemed unattractive or they fail to maintain the beauty standard, they risk being branded “off brand” and get cut loose.
Despite the cries of discrimination against short, greasy, stiff hair with bangs, it’s likely that American Apparel attracts a self-screened applicant pool that already strives to meet their ideal. I would never want to work at a place that would strip away my hair dryer rights.
I also would not want to work at a clothing store that would refuse to hire the short-haired Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan.
Earlier this week, I received an email from Boston Casting seeking to hire “Handsome, Athletic Men.” Their open call was for actors between 25 – 28 years old with blonde, light brown or auburn hair, and ended with this redundant job qualification: “Must be handsome.”
I suspect the casting agency wasn’t flooded with complaints from bald senior citizens or even 29-year-old dark-haired men. Every hiring process is essentially a casting call. All American Apparel is doing is putting their criteria up front.
Netflix takes the opposite approach. When hiring customer support representatives for its Oregon facility, the company welcomes “individualists who wouldn’t take a job at another corporate environment.”
“We don’t have a dress code, or a hair code, or a body-parts-piercing code,” Netflix executive Steve Swazey recently told the Portland Mercury. “As long as you have a good phone demeanor, and if you’re good at giving Netflix customers (movie) advice… it doesn’t matter how you’ve pierced or branded yourself.”
And there’s plenty of small business owners who also look past first impressions.
“Younger people are a bit skeptical about how us baby boomers are going to judge and treat them, so they migrate toward their peers,” says LoriLeigh Moreland, owner of the Pet Empawrium in suburban Denver. “I am amazed at how they will actually listen to one of my 17 year olds with gauged ears and pink hair over me with 32 years in the biz!”
It’s time for employees to stop whining about dress codes. If a company only wants applicants with Rapunzel hair and Mike Dukakis eyebrows, nobody is forcing you to work there. For every American Apparel, there’s another dozen businesses that care about your brain.
Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Herald. Check out the Stiff blog at: http://www.bostonherald.com/blogs/