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Budding flight attendants between the late 1920s and 1990s may have dreamt of working for “golden” US airline Pan Am. However, it seems behind the uniform was a very “dark” reality for many of the cabin crew.
While doing research for his new book Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century: The Pan American Ideal, Dr Bryce Evans, associate professor in History at Liverpool Hope University, spoke with former crew members for the airline.
During one of these conversations, he discovered a devastating reality for some of the crew.
Strict rules meant the way their looked was always governed over.
In fact, according to former flight attendants, the airline’s stringent beauty standards meant you could even lose your job over something as simple as gaining a little bit of weight.
According to one of the crew members Dr Evan’s spoke to, the cabin crew were subject to regular weight checks to make sure they had not gained any extra pounds.
What’s more, they could even be “hired and fired based on their appearance”.
One document from the 1960s uncovered by Dr Evans revealed how applicants could be turned down for being plain, unattractive, divorced, “has child”, “cold, passive”, “too much eye make-up”, “dumpy – head too small for body”, “judo handshake”.
Meanwhile, he also discovered applicants were favoured for being “homely”, “lady-like”, “a pretty girl, pleasant” or “friend of company executive”.
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Dr Evans added: “It’s the Janus-faced nature of Pan Am – on the one hand, you had this ‘body beautiful’ Golden Age, but on the other hand they were treating people like meat.”
Despite this, Dr Evans points out many of the crew members he spoke to were not phased by the rules put upon them.
“When I mentioned this to them, none had an issue with the conditions and none felt oppressed,” he said.
“Yet very few lasted a year or more in the profession and many married wealthy passengers or pilots.
“It perhaps reflects the standards of the age and while I found it quite sad, none of them had a shred of regret that they didn’t have a longer career.”
However, many of the former flight attendants reportedly feel upset the role of “cabin crew member” has been “sexualised” in popular culture over the years.
“After speaking with the former Pan Am employees, they were all disappointed at how sexualised the image of the stewardess had become in popular culture,” Dr Evans said.
“There was real frustration there, and they wanted to emphasise the professionalism of the job, and how it wasn’t about sexy girls in tight uniforms.
“In this respect, Pan Am was a cut above. Some of the other airlines at the time had stewardesses in hot pants.
“But Pan Am never cheapened itself in that way.”
However, one issue a former flight attendant did have with the airline was the way in which pilots often treat the cabin crew.
“Many former flight attendants recall the dislike they felt towards pilots who viewed themselves as ‘Sky Gods’ and who would complain and occasionally sulk if they did not get the food they had requested,” said Dr Evans.
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