Thursday, January 02, 2014

Retail woes and feminist infighting

-An inside account of what it's like to work at Lululemon. Mary Mann does more with this topic than one might imagine possible. But what's never really addressed head-on, yet seems crucial, is the way that the women selling these pants tend to look the part. Not exactly like Lululemon shoppers - more like younger, fitter versions thereof. Like the women one's husband will run off with should one not do enough yoga. So while it's the same deal, unsurprisingly, as other retail jobs in the U.S., in terms of paying badly and not offering benefits, you won't be helped by the same person who'd be doing so at Old Navy. You'll be getting a chipper, college-educated positivity-embracing sort, or, as in Mann's case at the time, an aspiring writer-editor, one darker/more cynical than the Lululemon brand would prefer, yes, but still someone whose apparent class (as vs. actual bank account) is consistent with the pants.

And I could ramble on (and on) about what this tells us about class being complicated. Is someone who looks posh but is scrambling to get by actually as posh as all that? Is it so different to work at Lululemon than at Old Navy? With endless time for this post, I'd find a way to connect it to Rebecca Schuman on the MLA, but I'll have to let you, my three holiday-season readers, draw your own conclusions.

-For reasons I myself don't entirely understand, but that I think relate to needing enough podcasts to walk the world's most energetic poodle, I'm very much up to date on the BBC Woman's Hour, perhaps more so than the hosts themselves. There was a year-end special on feminism in 2013, which... Was feminism big in 2013, or are the feminism controversies of that year the ones still fresh in our minds? The ones having to do with Miley Cyrus, or anti-airbrushing campaigns, or work-life balance. Or was having-it-all the concern of 2012?

In any case, 2013 seems to have been when BBC Woman's Hour discovered (or for all I know rediscovered) intersectionality. Scandal ensued. Reni Eddo-Lodge sums up the conflict, and links to the apology she received from fellow panelist Caroline Criado-Perez. While my U.S. vantage point - and this being audio-only would have assumed intersectionality might have applied to both women, I take it Criado-Perez is, at least by British definitions, white and nothing else. Eddo-Lodge is black.

The scandal was privilege-checking. Eddo-Lodge said yes, privilege should be checked, because intersectionality. Criado-Perez said no, because abuse. "Abuse" in this context meant something, although I'm not sure what. Online harassment, I suspect. I think she meant YPIS-hurling, in which case fair enough. YPIS has gotten out of hand.

However! YPIS-hurling isn't what's going on when someone who is actually a member of a marginalized group/in a marginalized position spells out that which out-group members don't understand. YPIS is when (to oversimplify) one rich white person tells another that their privilege is showing, and initiates a contest over which of the rich white people assembled is the true authority on being poor and black. That's where YPIS nastiness occurs.

Because the same terms are used by the YPIS brigade as by the legitimate-complaint-havers, I can well see how Criado-Perez reacted as she did once these terms came up. And there's a case to be made (if one that's just about impossible to make in sound-byte length) that the misuse of "privilege" has been so great that we need to scrap the term. But it's about context. "Privilege" as Eddo-Lodge was discussing it was a very different thing than the sorts of accusations Criado-Perez has apparently dealt with. Her grievance, while legit, isn't with what was being discussed, so Eddo-Lodge's interpretation of this as a derail seems about right. Not, that is, that it much matters what this white-by-U.S.-if-not-necessarily-British-standards American feminist thinks.


caryatis said...

Re: Lululemon, It bothers me how everyone who has any bone to pick with Lululemon brings up the murder. It seems unfair to blame the company for something that could have happened in any store or workplace.

By all accounts the murderer was pretty....crazy. That probably has more to do with her crime than exercising or working a lot. I recall another article which seemed to blame yoga itself for the fact that not everyone who does yoga is a saint.

But I suppose you get more pageviews with murder in a story, regardless of how much you have to stretch to make the connection.

Phoebe said...

Yes, the murder connection was there as a hook, but I don't know how necessary it was. Lululemon's been in the news plenty since then, and there's something potentially interesting about the story of the company from a retail worker's perspective. There's something... special about the stores where workers obviously are hired on the basis of perceived socioeconomic status, yet paid and otherwise treated the same as other low-wage employees in the same sector. The people who'd think to apply to Lululemon or Whole Foods, say, in the first place are probably different from those who'd apply at Old Navy or Walmart, but not necessarily as different as all that.

Londoner said...

And I could ramble on (and on) about what this tells us about class being complicated. Is someone who looks posh but is scrambling to get by actually as posh as all that?

I sometimes wonder about appearance and class. In and age where looks and thinness define social status, does a poor, skinny, blonde girl from West Virginia outrank a plus size Harvard graduate?

Phoebe said...


It's context, and what people make of their situations. If the girl in question is attractive, and parlays that into a career where looks are key (actress, model, newscaster, etc.), or marries into another socioeconomic situation and takes it from there, she'll end up better-off than a Harvard graduate of any size who never really makes anything of that degree. But if two people are sending resumes out, and one went to Harvard, that's probably the person who'll hear back from more places, right?

"Looks and thinness" don't exactly "define" social status, but they impact perception. As in, your theoretical blonde here might be treated better in stores than Oprah is.

Londoner said...

I guess we would first have to agree on what social status actually is. I would define it as how important the society at large considers a given person. Back in time, no no-name peasant girl was going to outrank Catherine de Medici, no matter how beautiful she may be. Today, I believe, it's very different. You now have a zero sum game where beauty, youth and thinness indicate where you are on the cultural totem pole, and wealth only serves in trying to capture those three values (over which rich women are mocked for trying to earn unnaturally). Even in the resume example you gave, studies seem to indicate that should the thin, poor girl actually get the job, she'd advance much more rapidly through the ranks than the plus size Harvard grad. I would think that the Harvard degree might get someone more interviews, but in the end, looks would seem more likely to get you hired. The firms may quietly feel that the poor, skinny girl is more representative of their "image" than the plus size Harvard grad. So what we're measuring here is the societal impact of an Ivy degree vs physical attractiveness. The poor girl's real competition would be Thin Ivy Girl, who has the complete package.

I suppose one way you could measure "social importance" is by media coverage of misfortune. Who's kidnapping would trigger a greater response, the West Virginia girl or the plus size Harvard graduate?

Another measure would be deference, i.e. in a physical meeting between the two, who subconsciously defers to who? Who has the power? Imagine the meeting between a plus size celebrity and a skinny, pretty, anonymous member of the public. What do you imagine the social dynamics in such a situation would be like? We know the anonymous girl would automatically defer to a Kate Bosworth type, but I'm not sure she would to a Melissa McCarthy/ Gabourey Sidibe type.

And then there's the ultimate measure. Who would trade places with who?

Londoner said...

One more thing, I would suggest Lululemon is well aware of these dynamics, which explains their use of poor but highly threatening female shop assistants.

I've never been to one of the stores, but I'm betting the staff do NOT defer to their wealthy customers, no matter what their rent situation is.

I'm also willing to bet that the power of the staff over customers reliably increases with the weight of the customer.

Phoebe said...

Interesting theory. I'd counter:

1) If you're correct, we'd be seeing immense social mobility among half the population (that is, women). Are we? I don't think so. Society's fairly divided on class lines these days.

2) Yes, back in the day, a beautiful poor woman wouldn't have much power. But nor would a smart but poor woman.

3) Lots of what "beauty" consists of (weight, being put-together in a way that appeals to high-end businesses or successful men, having access to orthodontists/dermatologists) is very much wrapped up with class.

4) Yes, a missing "girl" would be more of a sensation than a missing college graduate, on account of the age difference. But two equivalent girls, same age, one blond, the other the child of wealthy parents? Not so sure there.

And re: the dynamics in a Lululemon, yes, the staff tend to be slim, but so, too, are the customers - they notoriously don't stock larger sizes. I didn't find the experience of trying on clothes there (which I didn't buy, ultimately preferring the pants available at their slightly-lower-priced competitor) any more or less intimidating than anywhere else. There's just a weird thing where they ask your name and put it on the door - no idea how weight or beauty enters into that.