I’m partial to penguins, and when I see them, it makes me smile.
So when I saw the above picture, I started to smile.
That felt good.
The picture reminded me of something unpleasant.
That was bad.
Now, how could a picture of adorable penguins remind me of something unpleasant?
Let’s start with the where, who and what:
The penguin picture is from the ZSL London Zoo’s annual animal weigh-in (ZSL stands for Zoological Society London).
According to this story:
“With more than 14,000 animals in their care, ZSL London Zoo’s keepers spend hours throughout the year recording the heights and weights of all the animals – vital information which helps them to monitor their health and well-being.
“The annual weigh-in is an opportunity for keepers at ZSL London Zoo to make sure the information they’ve recorded is up-to-date and accurate, with each measurement then added to the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), a database shared with zoos all over the world that helps zookeepers to compare important information on thousands of endangered species.”
So it wasn’t just penguins who were getting weighed, but – as in often the case – penguins getting much of the attention. In addition to the image at the top, there were plenty of others, like this:
These ZSL London Zoo residents are Humboldt penguins, whose native habitat is along the coasts of Chile and Peru in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. They’re described as “medium sized,” grow to be about 26 to 28 inches long and weigh about 10.4 pounds.
And I’m betting that if one of those penguins weighed in at 10.9 pounds or even 11 pounds, they wouldn’t be banished from the ZSL London Zoo’s Penguin Beach exhibit for being overweight.
They wouldn’t be told, “You’re suspended without pay and if you don’t lose that extra weight, you’ll be terminated.”
But if you were a flight attendant, that’s exactly what could – and still can – happen to you.
I know, because I was a flight attendant.
When I was flying (this was back shortly after the Wright brothers’ first flight), every time my fellow crew members and I checked in at our home base airport to go on duty – work a flight – each of us was weighed. And the senior flight attendant wrote down our weights.
Just like the zookeepers do:
If you were a pound or two over your maximum weight – as decreed by the airline – you might get off with just The Look from the senior flight attendant.
You know – The Look.
I was never suspended or terminated for my weight, but I got The Look a number of times.
Just showing up for work meant gut-clenching, high anxiety – every time.
And then…whew. Dodged the bullet again.
If you were 10 pounds over, you could be suspended without pay, and advised to lose the weight and come back in two weeks for a weigh-in.
But more than 10 pounds?
I must mention that weight requirements did not apply to the cockpit crews. They get FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) physicals and if the FAA says a cockpit crew member is good to fly – regardless of their weight – then they fly.
But not flight attendants.
Described a weight-related termination case:
“In 1972, Sandie Hendrix, a stewardess at United, was fired after weighing in at a 127 pounds. (Hendrix was five feet two, and the limit for her height 118 pounds.)
“Her story made the national news, but not everyone was on her side: one nationally syndicated columnist, writing about the possible end of the airlines’ weight rules, bemoaned a future in which ‘human hippos’ start handing out the trays.”
It was all about female flight attendants, and how they looked.
Nothing to do with the fact – and it is a fact – that flight attendants are on airplanes for one reason:
Whether that’s safety demonstrations before flights take off and land, administering first aid and medical care in emergencies, or saving your life by helping you get off the plane as quickly and safely as possible in the event of a crash or water ditching.
And more recently – and regrettably – flight attendants have also had to deal with a tsunami of “unruly passengers,” many due to face mask and other COVID-related issues.
The beverages, snacks and whatever served by flight attendants are just window dressing.
A flight attendant’s value should never have been, and should never be, determined by their weight or anything else about their appearance.
But it was, and still is.
The above New Yorker article also references Diane Tucker, a flight attendant who has worked for United since 1968:
“Tucker started every workday by hiking her skirt so that an older woman, known as an ‘appearance supervisor,’ could peer underneath. ‘We lifted our skirt and showed our girdle,’ Tucker said. ‘They didn’t ask me whether I had my manual or my flashlight, or whether I had enough money to get a taxi if I needed it – they just wanted to know if I had my girdle on.’”
“…some women took diet pills or starved themselves to avoid losing their jobs. ‘If there was any suspicion that you didn’t look exactly the way the appearance supervisor thought you should look, she would have you hop on the scale in front of everybody,’ Tucker said. ‘If you were ten pounds over what your maximum was, they would remove you from your flight.’”
If removing a flight attendant from a flight leaves the crew shorthanded according to FAA regulations, then the airline must find a substitute before the flight can take off. This can cause a flight delay which can cause angry passengers, sometimes passenger compensation, and sometimes trouble with the FAA.
But some airlines thought all that was preferable to having “human hippos” handing out the trays.
In the 1990s airlines began to drop or relax their weight standards for flight attendants, according to this April 1994 article:
“USAir yesterday became the latest airline to drop its weight standards for flight attendants, settling a 1992 lawsuit filed by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”
“American Airlines, to settle a lawsuit, agreed in 1991 to relax its weight standards overall and to increase the weight limits further with age. As part of the settlement, American reinstated some flight attendants who had been dismissed because their weights violated the old guidelines.”
In these and other cases, it took lawsuits to bring about changes.
“Weight standards for flight attendants have been the subject of legal battles since the mid-1970s, when flight attendants began to assert that it was a form of sex discrimination to require them to meet weight requirements as a condition of holding their jobs. Many flight attendants saw the weight standards as a throwback to the era when they were ‘stewardesses’ and automatically lost their jobs when they married or turned 32.”
The article noted that United Airlines was still using weight restrictions for flight attendants, but a few months after the above New York Times article, that changed, according to this July 1994 article:
But the flight attendants weren’t done with United Airlines:
“United Airlines discriminated against female flight attendants from 1989 to 1994 by requiring them to stay thinner than their male counterparts, a federal court ruled Wednesday.
“The court said United’s weight policy was discriminatory on its face. The rules required women to stay within the ideal weight range for women with medium body frames. By contrast, men had it easy, the court said. Even men with small body frames were free to bulk up so their weight fell into the range for men with large body frames.”
“‘They wanted attractive, sexy flight attendants,’ said flight attendants’ attorney Edith Benay, referring to United Executives. ‘It was just a lack of respect for women who were doing their job well, in some cases for many years. All of a sudden, when they started to gain weight, they were out.’”
And apparently, some airlines are still showing that sexist, discriminatory mentality.
“According to an unnamed crew member, a flight attendant for Qingdao Airlines was recently grounded from flying because she weighed too much. The crew member, who refused to be identified, told the South China Morning Post that the airline had previously suspended – or even fired – flight attendants who exceeded the airline’s height-to-weight ratio.”
(Note: The “9st” in the article is “9 stone,” a British weight measure. One stone is 14 pounds; “9st” is 126 pounds.)
“A flight attendant who was fired by Malaysia Airlines for being overweight has lost an unfair dismissal case.
“Ina Meliesa Hassim, who had worked for the airline for 25 years, weighed 9st 7lbs when her contract was terminated in 2017.
“The company stipulates that cabin crew’s Body Mass Index (BMI) must fall within the ‘healthy’ range to continue working for the company.
“At 5ft 2in, Ms Hassim needed to weigh a maximum of 9st 6lbs to stay in the ‘healthy’ bracket.”
And this, from January 2022:
“Former employees said it [a ‘glamorous Emirates face’] was so important that there was an ‘Appearance Management Program’ run by image and grooming officers dedicated to ensuring flight attendants meet the airline’s standards.
“But where Emirates appears to go further than industry norms is in its weight requirements. Former cabin crew said image and grooming officers monitored and punished flight attendants deemed overweight.
“Internally at Emirates, these officers were known by some former staffers as the ‘weight police.’
“‘Weight police’ punishments include taking crew members off flights and job loss, some former employees told Insider.”
So – some foreign carriers are still operating in the aviation Dark Ages, while domestic carriers doing away with weight restrictions for flight attendants are showing some level of enlightenment.
I’ll wrap this up with two wishes.
Wish #1: That not just more airlines, but more passengers become enlightened as to the qualities that make great flight attendants. Which is not their weight, or their age, or whatever other “flaw” some ignorant people choose to find with their appearance.
And that we’ll see less crap like this 2015 article – and this attitude:
“As flight attendant Marcia served me water, I caught myself counting the wrinkles on her face. If I went by the wrinkles on her face, I would say that she was a great grandmother. Her co-worker Sheila was as round as a butterball turkey.”
And that we’ll see more articles – and appreciation – like this recent story:
“An 86-year-old American Airlines flight attendant was recognized by the Guinness World Records this week as the longest-serving and oldest flight attendant in the world.
“Bette Nash of Boston has been working at American Airlines for 65 years, which Guinness says is a record.”
Nash has her own memories of the bad old days:
“‘You had to be a certain height, you had to be a certain weight. It used to be horrible. You put on a few pounds and you had to keep weighing yourself, and then if you stayed that way, they would take you off the payroll,’ Nash recalled.”
Wish #2: Now that I’ve done my therapy by doing this post, I wish that the next time I see a ZSL London Zoo story about the penguin weigh-in or any story about penguins, I’ll have only smiling, and not unpleasant, thoughts.