L.A. Club Hiring Hostesses -- Must Be Anorexic To Apply
For all those unemployed women in the Los Angeles area (and with a county unemployment rate of 13.3 percent, there are a lot), a pretty cushy job is there for the taking. You can spend all night drinking and belting out your favorite show tunes. You don't have to strip, give massages or have sex with anyone. And you get paid $3,000-$5,000 a month. Just one hitch: You have to be anorexic.
A karaoke club in L.A.'s Koreatown recently posted a Craigslist ad looking for hostesses to entertain the various business clientele, who come through the joint between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. to bond over hard liquor and light pop.
As Jezebel reports, the ad specifies that the woman should have a "thin, fragile, fashion model appearance (long skinny arms and legs, NOT an athletic look)." And if that point wasn't clear, it says a few sentences later: "AGE: 21-28 and FRAGILE (NOT ATHLETIC) appearance." And if you still needed some explanation, the ad continues: "If you don't exercise, don't have muscles and look naturally SKINNY (not intentionally anorexic) -- that's the right look."
Not intentionally anorexic, maybe. But actually anorexic, most likely. The ad lists the approximate height/weight ratio requirements as: 5 feet, 7 inches and 90 to 100 pounds; 5 feet, 8 inches and 110 pounds; 5 feet, 9 inches and 115 pounds; or 5 feet, 10 inches and 120 pounds.
Health vs. 'The Right Look'
Weight and height can be computed to determine a person's Body Mass Index, a somewhat reliable indicator of body fat. A healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. Anything below 18.5 is underweight, and is one of the most significant indicators of anorexia. Below 16, and the person is extremely underweight, and most likely suffering from serious anorexia.
According to the ad's specifications, at 5 feet, 7 inches, you're required to have a BMI of between 14.1 and 15.7, at 5 feet, 8 inches, you must be around 16.7, at 5 feet, 9 inches, it should be 17.0, and at 5 feet, 10 inches, you should be a sort-of-almost-healthy 17.2.
While it's possible that women who hit these numbers are perfectly healthy, the general rule is that they are not. With low bone density, weak muscles, and almost no body fat, a person with a below normal BMI is probably not in a physically good condition.
This raises the question: Is it legal to require your hires to be dangerously underweight?
"That would certainly raise a lot of problems," says John Donohue, a professor at Stanford Law School.
Appearance standards in the workplace have always been muddy legal terrain, particularly as it ties in so many other heated workplace issues, like age, gender, social class and race. (Older and lower-income individuals, for example, tend to weigh more on average, as do many women of color.)
Air stewardesses were the ones to lead the charge against weight limits in hiring. Until the mid-1960s, most airlines refused to hire women who were above a certain stringent weight limit, and fired their hostesses when they reached 32 or got married. Since most airline customers at the time were businessmen of a certain age, recruiting the most nubile, attractive young stewardesses proved a good sell.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned private companies of 25 or more employees from discriminating against applicants on the basis of sex, race, national origin, or religion, but with the caveat that "those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise."
The question then became whether these particular specifications were "bona fide occupational qualifications" or BFOQ. In a frenzy of cases in the late '60s and '70s, courts ultimately found that being female and single weren't bona fide qualifications for the job of helping transport airline passengers safely across the sky. Age discrimination legislation also came into effect around this time.
But the issue of weight limits remained unresolved.
In 1990, Delta refused to hire nine job applicants, former flight attendants for Pan American World Airways, each with at least 14 years of experience, who were between 2 and 10 pounds over the airline's weight limit of 153 pounds for a 5-foot-6-inch woman. The women sued, and in 1997 New York's highest court ruled that Delta was completely within its legal rights.
If the women were obese, they would have had a different kind of legal case, as AOL Jobs has reported. Morbidly obese individuals (but not fat or standardly obese individuals) can claim that their condition is a disability, and thus protected under the "Americans With Disabilities Act." Certain states and localities have specific protections on the books for the obese.
In the Delta lawsuit, the plaintiffs' lawyer, James Strauss, stated: "If they were clinically obese, they would have had a better shot."
A complaint against weight limits has more footing if the specification is applied differently to men and women, and often weight-based cases are put into terms of sex discrimination.
The women suing Delta tried to make that case, since men had a slightly higher weight limit. The court determined, however, that this variance was "based on real physiological differences."
This comparison can't be made for the karaoke club hostess position, because only women are eligible for the job, for reasons one can imagine. Something to do with the need "to socialize with and entertain professional/business clientele in a private club environment."
"You're providing sex-linked services here," says Donohue, making sex and age potentially valid bona fide occupational qualifications. Just like a man applying to be a Hooters waitress can be legally rejected on the basis of his manhood.
The fact that the weight specifications are unhealthy, however, make them more problematic. The employer may hire anorexic women, "but if they got better they'd presumably be fired," says Donohue, "and that clearly would not be a tolerable approach."
Pushing The Limits?
California law in particular is more protective of worker's rights than other jurisdictions, and "anything that would insist upon something that was clearly unhealthy would tend to run afoul."
The karaoke club could claim that there are some women at this weight who are in fine physical shape, but even still, Donohue says, "It's definitely pushing the limits if it's an anorexic-type weight range."
Not only does this advertisement graze legal boundaries in the realms of sex, age, appearance, and health, it also touches on the very legally protected subject of race. Race is not mentioned at all explicitly in the ad, but it does say that "some knowledge of Korean ... is a big plus" and Asian women have, on average, a lower BMI than white women (not necessarily for physiological reasons, but because the pressure to be skinny is very high in certain Asian countries, like Korea and Japan.)
"This may be their way of advertising for young Asian women," Donohue speculates, "but they're afraid that if they say young Asian women, they might run a foul of discrimination on the basis of race."
"If this was just a trick to limit it to Asian women, then there's a direct racial bias claim."
While the club may have skirted discrimination claims with respect to appearance, age and sex, due to the sexually charged nature of the work, the issues of health and race mean that a creative lawyer could probably have a field day.
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