Flight Attendant Hell: "Barbie Boot Camp"
The life of a flight attendant sounds glamourous, doesn’t it? Flying around the world, getting amazing discounts on travel, never having to gradually feel your brain disintegrating in an office cubicle, having new coworkers every day…I thought it sounded like the perfect job for me.
That is, until I went through the training.
Flight attendant training is notoriously tough and was referred to by flight attendant Heather Poole in her memoir Cruising Attitude as “Barbie Boot Camp”. Although Poole went through training in the 80’s, I can verify that still holds up in 2019. I’m sure that 9/11 didn’t help. Anyway, here’s a glimpse into one of the worst experiences of my life.
Sexism Likes to Fly...
My first glimpse into what I’d be dealing with came when I received the study packet two weeks before training. Among the acronyms, abbreviations, and commands we would need to know was the over 10-page dress code.
Although I knew that the origins of the career I was choosing to train for were definitely sexist, I didn’t expect the dress code to be so outdated. Among the points were a few that don’t seem like they belong in 2019. Here are some gems for you:
“Clean shaven legs are required when the dress or skirt is worn (female only)”
“Females must be free of facial hair.”
“Mascara (black, brown or clear) and lip gloss or tint (natural shade) is required to be worn”
“Makeup and lipstick must be compatible with skin tone and hair color and be natural looking”
“Makeup must be natural in color and compliment the overall uniform look”
“Men: Face tint must be compatible with skin tone and hair color and natural looking. All other makeup is prohibited. Tattooed makeup is prohibited.”
“Fingernails must be clean, buffed, and, trimmed. If polished they must be chip free”
“Extreme styles, cuts, spikes, volume, messy, unkempt, frizzing, and pigtails (including buns and braids) are not permitted.”
I just want to talk about that last point for a minute… do these people not know how hair works?? If it’s humid, forget about it.
And let’s just take a minute to think about the fact that there’s still a profession out there where women are required to shave their legs, wear makeup, have chip-free nail polish, and must NOT have frizzy or unkempt hair…that’s not prostitution. And telling men that they are not allowed to wear makeup is just as sexist.
Although it was hard for me to willingly pursue a job with that kind of blatant sexism in their dress code, I was still willing to give it a chance. As it turns out though, it goes deeper than that.
In the company I went to training for (which I will not name) there were two instances of flight attendants claiming to have been drugged and sexually assaulted by pilots- one by a FA who worked at the company itself and another through one of their partners.
In both stories, neither of the pilots were fired. To top it all off, In the month long training, this company was not even going to discuss sexual harassment (although I left after two weeks, it is not listed anywhere on the calendar we were given).
If it’s not amazing enough that a company with multiple reports of sexual assault (in their company and their partner’s) isn’t discussing sexual harassment, I’ve got more for you.
What we were told relating to sexual harassment was stories about flight attendants being stalked to their hotel room door. We were told to watch out because the company’s partners allow passengers to take pictures of flight attendants and that some will try to take pictures of you in your skirt for flight attendant fetish websites and that we just had to deal with that.
When another concerned trainee asked, “isn’t that sexual harassment?” the instructor, a woman, responded by repeatedly asking in an annoyed voice, “How is that sexual harassment?” and advised us to “make sure you keep your legs closed” as the way to deal with it. And that was the end of that.
All I’ll say is that for a company with two cases of sexual harassment, that trains flight attendants who are likely to experience sexual harassment by passengers at some point in their career, this is not enough. In fact, it is downright harmful to tell women that their only point of defense against sexual harassment is to “keep your legs closed”.
That is not okay.
Don’t Mind Me…
Besides the blatant sexism that seemed to be ingrained in the company culture, the trainers were unnecessarily cruel.
I’ll never forget the time one of the trainees huddled over the trash can in the back, unable to leave the room (because if you leave the room and it’s not an official break, you’re sent home immediately), and just said something like “don’t mind me, I’m feeling a little sick, but go on..”
Reluctantly, and looking annoyed, the teacher called for a break to let the woman vomit in peace.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that flight attendants need to be tough, especially in a post 9/11 world. You need to be calm under pressure, and able to evacuate a plane full of panicky people in 90 seconds max.
But the way they talked to us, like we were the dumbest, least important people to ever exist, was dehumanizing. I understand needing to maintain distance from your students, or the need to be a little tough to enforce regulations.
It’s still necessary to treat people with respect.
It’s still necessary to be kind to people who are still learning.
It’s still necessary to have compassion and empathy.
And those points are always true, in anything you do.
It’s sad to me that a profession with so much potential is still so entrenched in sexism and that the training process had to be so dehumanizing. It’s frustrating to walk away from something you KNOW you would be good at and possibly enjoy, because the company or culture of the industry goes against so much of what you believe in. I tried to push past all of it, I did, but sometimes your gut gets the best of you.