Starting in January of this year, flight attendant Heather Poole has gone public about being one of the thousands of American Airlines crew members who have allegedly gotten seriously ill as a result of company-issued in-flight uniforms.
“Let the record state that I can’t prove that any of my health problems are in fact caused by my wearing the uniform,” Poole wrote in her January Medium post of the way that her long-stable thyroid disorder has been newly triggered by the new uniform, among other things. “This is how the uniform manufacturer continues to get away with it. The burden of proof lies on me. It’s also why American refuses to recall the uniform. Because we have not yet been able to prove what, exactly, is making us sick.”
Throughout 2017, Poole has taken to Medium to detail the impact that the new uniform has had on her health and that of other colleagues. In addition to the respiratory and thyroid conditions that Poole is reckoning with as a result of the uniform, other American Airlines flight attendants say they have developed asthma and other breathing problems, reactive full-body rashes, and even fertility issues — all as a result of the new uniform.
But according to Poole’s latest Medium post, the physical symptoms aren’t the only harm that have been lobbed her way as a result of her company’s uniforms. Now, she says, she’s also being provoked by online trolls and peers in the industry alike who are denying the veracity of her claims about her health. Their main arguments against her are either that she’s a whore or sexless, both lines of attack rooted in cultural stereotypes surrounding female flight attendants and sexuality.
“Because the sexy stereotype won’t die, nobody cares when we have something serious to discuss,” Poole writes of the cultural biases working against her.
Case in point is, Poole writes: “Why so many friends and co-workers (and even an executive at another airline) are quick to ask, ‘what about the pilots?’ whenever the uniform crisis comes up. I’m sorry but I find it offensive that I need a pilot to prove what I’m experiencing is real. For the record, there are female pilots. But not that many. In fact, whenever I hear the ratio of female to male pilots I’m always shocked. Piloting airliners is still a male-dominated industry. Flight attendants are still primarily women. This is why, I’m sure, our CEO continues to only discuss the flight attendants in connection to the uniform. Because if the pilots aren’t affected, nobody cares. It’s not real. We’re liars.”
Melanie Brewster, an assistant professor of psychology and the co-founder of the Sexuality, Women, & Gender Project at Columbia University in New York City, tells Yahoo Beauty that Poole is far from alone in being a woman met with disbelief about her own medical condition. The way in which women aren’t taken seriously in medical contexts is well-documented: Studies have found that women are forced to wait longer to receive pain medicine in hospital settings than men, that extreme menstrual pain described by women to their physicians is frequently dismissed, that women receive less aggressive treatment for heart attacks when admitted to hospitals than men, and that the default in clinical trials for pharmaceuticals is male patients. The sociocultural phenomenon of not trusting women about their own health has made women skeptical of medicine itself, too, further reinforcing a dangerous cycle that leaves women’s concerns about their health ignored.
And Brewster says that she thinks women’s sexuality plays a central role in this problem.
“In psychology we have a framework called Objectification Theory which explains that women are sexualized to such a point that their worth and value is entirely dictated by their outward appearance,” Brewster says. “Women who are in historically sexualized occupations (i.e., flight attendants, hostesses, waitresses, fashion models) are some of the easiest to objectify because their jobs put them on display for consumption.
“And, of course, objects don’t complain; the purpose of an object is to please,” Brewster continues. “This is why men just don’t buy women’s pain; it is repeatedly minimized or dismissed as hysteria or disproportionate whining because it is incongruent with women being happy rays of sunshine, easy to look at and nondisruptive.”
Brewster adds that because of this, for someone like Poole to claim that her own health isn’t being believed is not totally dissimilar to the way in which survivors of sexual assault routinely meet skepticism. These survivors, she says, are too often viewed “as objects” — and as such, “they don’t have power over their own narrative. Men still hold that power.”
Furthermore, Brewster says, there is something about uniforms in general that helps to invalidate women’s pain. The allegations about the American Airlines uniforms, she says, reflect “a long history of women having to ‘suck up’ pain and discomfort in order to adhere to unrealistic cultural beauty norms.”
For further proof, she says one need look no further than the fact that until very recently (and even today for some airlines), flight attendants were required to wear high heels during their in-flight shifts, despite the known health risks associated with this kind of footwear. This is why Canada went so far as to make it illegal to require the wearing of high heels at work. High heels can cause muscle degradation and hip problems when worn over long stretches of time.
And in many professions where a uniform is required, as is the case for the iflight crews of commercial airlines, these clothing choices reflect a “tacit expectation … [that the female employee] either look ‘sexy’ at work, or find another job.”
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