Since the first ever commercial flight attendants were employed in the 1930s, they have been known for looking ‘glamorous’. There has been a continual expectation for them to wear stylish outfits, often including high-heels for females.
The extent of this expectation was thrown into stark light recently, when Norwegian Airlines was forced to clarify its policy on female attendants’ shoes, after being branded out-dated and ‘embarrassing’ by Norwegian politicians. The Airline confirmed that, whilst flat shoes are worn whilst onboard aircrafts for safety reasons, female flight attendants are expected to wear heels whenever they are wearing their uniform in an airport. Attendants are only allowed to wear flat shoes if they have a doctor’s note that specifies wearing heels could endanger their health.
In the wake of Norwegian Airlines’ announcement, several other airlines have confirmed that their uniform code includes the same rule, including Qantas, El Al, Virgin Australia and several American airlines.
In recent years, policies forcing women to wear heels have been widely condemned as sexist. Workplaces ranging from accountant firms to casinos have been involved in high-profile legal cases, resulting in some countries making it illegal for companies to make heels a mandatory dress code requirement.
And yet, many airlines are still allowed to insist their female employees wear these uncomfortable, impractical shoes.
For as long as airhostesses have existed, there’s been an insistence that they should be ‘beautiful’. No-one seems quite sure why or how this tradition started, but they are expected to maintain a glamorous appearance at all times, even when dealing with screaming babies on trans-Atlantic flights, or directing confused passengers to seats.
When one tries to do an internet search asking why airhostesses are expected to be so attractive, the most common answer seems to be that ‘they are representing a company’, so should aim to look stylish and create a positive impression. Yet, the same can be said of receptionists, waitresses and bellhops, and the pressure placed on them to look smart seems far less intense.
It may be that the trend for ‘attractive’ airhostesses can simply be justified by the fact flying is intended to be a special occasion, since it is often the start of an exciting trip. Being greeted by a young, attractive attendant could be considered a pleasant start to one’s holiday.
But, at what cost? Not only does forcing flight attendants to wear heels objectify them, and make them feel as though their role revolves solely around looking aesthetically pleasing, it actively endangers their health.
Wearing heels for prolonged periods of time is extremely uncomfortable, and has been linked to medical conditions including muscle cramps, damaged knee joints, and an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis. The shoes force wearers to place more pressure on the knee joints which, over-time, ages and damages the joint. The idea of wearing them whilst power-walking across an airport seems, at best, absurd and, at worst, actively dangerous.
At the end of the day, as long as airline passengers arrive at their destination safely, and receive a snack or two during the flight, it seems unlikely that they’ll notice their cabin crew’s shoes.
Air travel might be a modern miracle, but forcing stewardesses to wear heels is a policy that belongs in the 1950’s. Let’s hope for a future where, as seen in many other industries, the quality of the service they provide is seen as more important than adhering to a draconian dress code.