Aesthetic labour – to get ahead get a haircut?

As an events management student I try to make sure I push myself to get as much experience in the industry as possible. With this frame of mind in place I have applied to many a casual or temporary job opportunity in the vein of events like bar work, stewarding, front of house, promotion, anything that makes the range of experience on my CV look appropriately vast. In my humble opinion I’m not a fussy applicant; as long as I can get home safely post-event, I’m happy to try my hand at anything. There is however one requirement in the application process that causes me to shudder, stop what I’m doing and apply for
something else:

‘Please disclose your CV, a cover letter and a portrait photo of yourself.’

I noticed though, that this seemed to be a requirement for a large amount of jobs in the industry today1 and I’m probably shutting myself off from opportunities I could really benefit from. So I decided to look into it a bit further.

Is it just me?

I started talking to some other students on my course to see what they thought when they were asked to submit photos of themselves before being considered for a job:

Have you ever applied for a job where they asked for your photo with your CV? What did you think about it?

  • Nope, that’s a bit cheeky!
    I’d feel embarrassed, judged and uncomfortable if someone asked me
  • Yes, bars especially.
    I think it’s judgemental. I’ve only done it once.
  • Another fellow student had submitted photos on multiple occasions and got the job “in some cases but they purely judge on what you look like which isn’t really a company I would want to work for in the first place… sometimes jobs look for a certain type of candidate”
  • I think they could be a little bit discriminating and kind of makes me think that the whole thing is based on looks

While these conversations don’t in anyway equate to a scientific sample, surely it’s not an employer’s goal to implement a recruitment process that’s is off-putting and in some cases repellent to five budding soon-to-be graduates?

Is this legal?

The whole photo situation had faint connotations of prejudice and discrimination for me. I, of course, know that the majority of if not all service industry jobs rightly should vet their prospective employees to see if they fit the image of the company, possess basic social skills and check all the other relevant aspects of a person. However, I was under the impression that subtlety was key, why would a company want to advertise their possible aesthetic-based bias? And how can we be sure the image isn’t being used for other types of discrimination?  Actually, is this even legal?

According to the UK Government, it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of:


being or becoming a transsexual person

being married or in a civil partnership

being pregnant or having a child


race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin

religion, belief or lack of religion/belief


sexual orientation

I don’t want to be overly pessimistic or paranoid, but what honest to god guarantee do we have that our image isn’t used to discriminate? Age, race and sex are all things that could be judged based on an image and while I wouldn’t be disappointed to miss out on a job with an employer who would do this, I also don’t think I’d want to be accepted by an employer who would do this.

Taking race for example, The Guardian reported that an inquiry “found that many job applicants of ethnic minority had changed their name or appearance to try to overcome prejudices – and when they did their scope for getting a job increased”. As a person with brown skin, I worry about both not looking ‘right’ for the job or getting the job simply because of a company’s obligation to fill a diversity quota.

Soft skills

After trying to put myself into the shoes on the other side of this discussion (rather than assume that the working world is shallow and I’ll have to get used to it), I thought of a scenario where sending a photo might be useful to me as an employer. Maybe the point of the photo is that some people aren’t put off by the request. Maybe it’s the basic confidence that these people have that the employers are looking for.

Confidence is what’s known as a ‘soft skill’. Soft skills as outlined by The Independent include teamwork, basic computer skills, emotional intelligence, lateral and critical thinking, time management and communication skills (written and verbal).  Nickson et al. (2004) studied aesthetic labour and found that there was a trend of employers valuing self-presentation skills (grooming, dress sense, body language, voice/accent) over technical skills or experience.

Used in this instance, as a shortcut to see who has at least one of these skills, I understand. Some soft skills are difficult or time consuming to train; How does one go about train2ing someone to be emotionally intelligent? The average company/business does not have the time to train people in grooming and style tips. If there was a definitive 100% proven course offering training and a diploma in confidence, most of us would sign up right away. While I understand the benefits of finding out if a service industry applicant has confidence, is well groomed and maybe looks friendly, it still doesn’t sit right with me. I’d rather be able to demonstrate my communication, computer and lateral/critical thinking skills at the same time as employers have the chance to assess my aesthetics.

While I’m sure that this won’t end any time soon and it’s something I’m going to have to get over and get used to in this industry, I still don’t see myself being comfortable sending my photo out with my CV; I just want to be sure that all of me has been accepted or rejected, not just my ‘look’.



(all images:


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