Trolley dollies: The impossible beauty standards of a flight attendant

Flight attendants are expected to radiate beauty on the outside, while many are feeling far from glamorous on the inside. Crew gives their insight into the dated and sometimes toxic beauty expectations of the industry. 

Story by Eliza Freeman

The airline industry is one that everyone is familiar with, and many are fascinated by, yet most people know very little about it. Stewardess, flight attendant, cabin crew, whichever job title is used, the same image is usually conjured up: perfectly manicured people in tight, bright uniforms, big smiles, amazing job perks and wild layovers. A flight attendant thinks 2am wake-ups, never-ending safety checks and procedures, wearing a cake of make-up for 15 hours or more, constant dehydration and trying passengers. 

It all starts on recruitment day. If you are lucky enough to make it to the final rounds and receive the ‘golden call’, you are in. From this day on you will be told how to dress, do your make-up, what to eat and where to eat it. Companies like Emirates or Etihad even know when you had your last period, if you have a tweety bird tattoo on your lower right stomach and if you plan to get engaged. If there are rumours of a crew pregnancy, crew are made to sign a ‘Menstrual Period Consent Declaration Form’ to declare they are not expecting, and all cabin crew have to ask for permission to marry. 

Walking, talking PR products

The government-owned company, Emirates, carries some of the harshest beauty standards in the industry. Trade unions are illegal in Dubai, so the crew has seen little change to the rules throughout the decades. Emirates cabin crew, Alison Cassidy, says the crew are walking and talking PR products. “They told us on the first day of flight attendant school, this brand is worth six billion dollars, there is no excuse to not be impeccable each day,” Cassidy says.

In previous years of recruitment at Emirates, crew were made to stand in a line and strip down to their underwear, every inch of their bodies examined by management and HR for any tattoos. Nowadays, tattoos are still forbidden anywhere on your body. However, crew are allowed the ‘dignity’ to be stripped naked during a private medical check and if potential employees have tattoos, they must sign a form to commit to having their tattoo removed.

If you make it past the hurdles of recruitment and secure your wings, Cassidy says snitching culture is the norm and even encouraged. If a fellow crew member hasn’t already caught you, grooming officers are waiting before each flight to check everyone is to ‘company standard’. Everything is checked, from hats sitting one inch above eyebrows to no baby hairs, to making sure skirts aren’t too tight after coming back from leave. 

The company is superficial just like the city of Dubai, it’s a glittering sandpit. – Cassidy 

Some employees are made to meet for regular appointments with The Emirates Nutritionist and go to monthly ‘weigh-ins’ until the nutritionist is satisfied with their weight gain. Employees are also constantly checked for acne, scars and braces. Some pilots also make it their business to let crew members know if they need to cut down on the trolley snacks. A captain reportedly watched a cabin crew member eat a brownie in the few-minute break in between loading the passengers, looked her up and down and said, “Are you sure you want to eat that?”

Four engine failures in three months

Qantas, also known as ‘The Flying Kangaroo’, claims to be ‘the world’s safest airline’. However, Qantas cabin crew, Jen Smith, says in the last three months, her fellow crew members have experienced four engine failures. That is more than ever and safety should be the most important aspect, and yet slick buns and four-inch heels still appear to take first place. To Smith, her heavy focus on safety and little preparation time make striving for perfection in the beauty department feel near impossible. “Long days with nine hours of rest is exhausting,” she says. Additionally, crew are almost guaranteed to age prematurely due to the lack of humidity in the air, so most crew spend their days off investing in fillers, skin products and plastic surgery to try and reverse the race against time. 

Similarly to Emirates Smith says: “Disciplinary action is taken on employees for failing to follow the beauty guidelines.” A crew member from a Qantas flight had just dyed her hair platinum blonde ready for her four-sector day. When she arrived, she was sent home again because her hair had a ‘blue tinge’. Cabin crew start with three points and on the third, they are fired. One point was taken from her that day. 

Cabin crew are many things: a hostess, nurse, firefighter, first line of safety, mediator and when needed, police. But one thing is for certain, they are not just trolley dollies there to pour tea without spilling it. They are trained in how to evacuate every passenger on an emergency water landing, what to do when a passenger has a stroke, cardiac arrest or seizure, how to deal with a death onboard, handcuff and arrest passengers, the procedure during a hijack or bomb threat and even how to deliver a baby onboard. They are there to keep you safe in an emergency, the free coffee and pretty smile at the door are just added perks.