Flying into History

I’m always fascinated with the 60s and the 70s.  This was a childhood time for me and the things I remember are but flashes of light in my mind…the TV shows, the cars we rode in, the songs on the radio, the clothing, the commercials that told us to smoke and drink, etc.  And I do remember the airline commercials for some reason, so when I came across this article by Ann Hood about being a stewardess in the 70s I was sucked right in.  First off, Ann Hood is a gifted writer and storyteller.  In her article, Into Thin Air (Allure/April 2009) she talks about wanting to be a stewardess, and how it was often frowned upon. This was considered a job for not-so-nice-girls.  In 1969 and the early 70s we saw women objectified and suppressed still, and the airline propaganda and limited thinking of those in authority were no exception.

“That was in 1969.  National Airlines  had a TV commercial in which a pretty blonde looked into the camera and said, “I’m Maggie.  Fly me.”  Braniff International Airlines had stewardesses who modified their uniforms six times during the flight. Southwest called their stewardesses Love Birds (pic above).  And TWA offered domestic flights with internationally costumed stewardesses: The “British” dressed like wenches, the “French” wore gold minis, and the “Italians” wore togas. Just one year earlier, Coffee, Tea or Me?: The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airlines Stewardesses (Bartholomew House) had become a best-seller.  The book promised “a gold mine of anecdotes from the aerial and amorous lives of those busty, lusty adventurous young ‘stews’ of the swinging 60s.”

Ann goes on, after telling her guidance counselor, Mr. Stone,  her dream of becoming a stewardess to which “he burst out laughing” and writes with gusto what she was told, and what she did afterward.

“Ann,” he said to me, smart girls do not become airline stewardesses.”
“Why not?” I asked him.  All I wanted was to get out of the depressed mill town where I lived and see the world.
Mr. Stone looked at me and stroked his muttonchop sideburns. “Smart girls become teachers or nurses.  Or,” he added brightly, “they get married.”
In 1969 in West Warwick, Rhode Island, smart girls did not have a lot of options.  Teacher, nurse, or wife did not offer me a chance to see the world and have adventures.  I left Mr. Stone’s office and went directly to the library, where I took out a book called
How to Become an Airline Stewardess.  It promised me lunch in Paris and dinner in Manhattan, boyfriends around the world, sophistication and elegance.  All I had to do was be tall (check), under the age of 26 (check), single (check), a high-school graduate (likely check), and weigh under 115 pounds (my adolescent body weighed in at 112, so…check).  I was on my way.”

Even more interesting is that when she did become employed by TWA, she lived in a constant fear of a surprise weigh-in, where her body weight would determine the continuation of her employment or her expulsion from the company.
“We had been warned about these checks–how we could get off a flight anywhere, anytime, and find a supervisor waiting with a clipboard and a measuring tape. We would get demerits for not wearing lipstick or our uniform jackets…for our heals being too high or too low, for bringing nonregulation luggage …and for a dozen other infractions.  And then we would be weighed.” She tells about starving herself, drinking tons of coffee, and not eating a drop of food after three p.m. to keep the weight down.  She’d been weighed in at 118, and if she went over that weight, she’d be fired.

Ms. Hood’s friend didn’t keep the her weight off, despite her best efforts. Her friend was met with numerous weigh-in, and subsequent demerits, until one day she was fired.  “Through tears and anger, she threatened discrimination lawsuits. “It’s 1979,” she said, “and women can still be fired for their weight?”

Have we come a long way, baby?  I would like to think that the airlines didn’t discriminate, that they held weight standards for the flight of the plane, etc., but the fact remains, those girls had to fit into those tiny hot pants and they had to be able to slip on those white leather go-go boots….and, of course, they had to be able to fit down the aisles effortlessly, but mostly they had to appeal to people they attended to, especially the male passengers.  “When I look at pictures of myself as a flight attendant, I see now that I was gaunt.  I see, too, that Linda was right:  Getting fired for your weight was outrageous.  But so were most of the requirements forced upon us. We were called flight attendants, but in many ways, we were still just sky girls.”

I still wonder:   Have we really come a long way?…

Photo source: Brian Finke

Perhaps new airline attire is a bit different.  And a few years back  Hooters Airlines went bust…no pun intended….


One Response to “Flying into History”

  1. Lisa Chapman Says:

    A really good post Jenn, I enjoyed reading it – and in answer to the question have things really changed? Alas, they have not. It’s a man’s world and you are very aware of it when working in the business world and let’s face it, everything is business. Even if you’re in the entertainment or arts, it’s all about money.

    I too grew up in that era and have a fondness for all things of the sixties and seventies. All those modern chairs, lighting, furniture, cars and even some clothing from those times which I didn’t give much thought to then, now have a nostalgic hold on me. Oh for the days of Keith Partridge… *swoon*….. =)

    Love, Lis


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