How did the lipstick affair make it into the news? Did Turkish Airlines issue a press release in which it stated that as of now red lipstick is forbidden for stewardesses? No, they reacted only after the discussion started. Probably it was the group of stewardesses that protested the ban by putting pics of themselves with red lips online. Fact is, lipstick is on the political agenda. It is actually – can you believe it – world news that Turkey’s national carrier doesn’t want its cabin crew to use red lipstick anymore.

According to journalism standards, an airline that decides which make-up its staff should and should not use is not news. Except if it orders its stewardesses to wear black lipstick and nail polish, or if it demands its male cabin crew use lipstick too, because that is exceptional.

Make-up classes

It is perfectly normal for an airline to decide how its staff looks. You know that when you become a stewardess. You won’t even get hired if you don’t fit the average beauty standards. Before you can fly, you get make-up classes, to make sure you appear at work the way the company likes it. You get handed the uniform, and you don’t get a say in whether you like it or not. Because in the air (and the same goes for ground staff), you are not supposed to be a personality in your own right, but a  representative  of the company.

So why is the lipstick affair news? Because it can be framed as an ‘Islamization in Turkey’ story. Imagine a Turkey correspondent mailing his paper or agency abroad, writing: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick!’ Will the editor somewhere in New York, Paris or Hong Kong get excited? No, he will shrug his shoulders. But what if you mail: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick, and some say it’s a sign of Turkey’s Islamization!’ Bingo.

The question is: does it have anything to do with Islamization? There is no proof whatsoever of that. Turkish Airlines (Türk Hava Yollari, THY) apparently wants its personnel to look natural, and bright colour lipstick or nail polish doesn’t suit that image. I bet there are hundreds of airlines in the world that have similar rules. Nobody ever wrote a news story about that.

Basic economic sense

Just like some time ago, when Turkish Airlines announced it would no longer serve alcohol on some domestic flights and on some international flights. You can imagine how that was immediately framed. If you made any effort to get a little bit of extra information, you would have found out that alcohol was taken off the menu on domestic flights on which alcohol was never ordered. I would say its basic economic sense to not take up in the air what you don’t need anyway. On flights to destinations where people do want to drink – from Istanbul to coastal cities like Antalya, Bordum and Izmir – alcohol is still being served. Custom made service, right?

The international flights? Turkish Airlines is expanding its number of destinations rapidly, also in the Arabic world. At some destinations, you don’t get landing rights if you serve alcohol. So what do you do if you want to earn money? You take alcohol off the menu. Which pilgrim on the way to Medina would order wine anyway? Besides, worldwide there are a whole lot of airlines that don’t serve alcohol on short flights. Ever read throbbing news articles about those?

Islamization scaremongers

But the uniform, remember the uniform! Yes, I remember the uniform. Not too long ago, a picture of ‘the new THY uniform’ leaked to the Turkish press. Long skirts to the ankles,  caftan-like overcoats. See, Islamization! Soon it turned out that it was just one of the many new uniform designs that were considered by THY, and that they hadn’t yet made up their mind about which one to pick. They still haven’t, as far as I know. But the Islamization scaremongers don’t care, they only see the story they want to see.

The Islamization scaremongers say this lipstick policy is one of the steps towards making women invisible and curtailing women’s rights. You wait and see, before you know it, red lipstick will be banned on the street too! And then high heels! And before you know it, the burka is obligatory! They forget that this is a legitimate company regulation, and that there is no law involved, and that the governing party AKP has nothing to do with this.

And, for that matter, the AKP has been in power now for ten years and has not issued one law that restricts the way people are dressed in any way. Yes, they gave the headscarf more freedom. Which leads to higher levels of education for women who wear the scarf. I think that’s good for women’s emancipation, and it complies with the freedom of religion. And it has absolutely nothing to do with lipstick at Turkish Airlines.

Variety of customers

The lipstick policy of THY has to do with the rapid growth of the company. They no longer only fly to Berlin and Amsterdam, but also to Addis Ababa, Jeddah, Beijing, Bahrein, Capetown, Sapporo, Sao Paulo, Ndjamena and Islamabad – you name any corner in the world and THY goes there. Their company profile has to fit the expectations of an ever-extending variety of customers. So you keep it as plain and natural as possible. You try to ban exceptions to the rules, and turn back freedoms that individual employees have started to permit themselves. Logical, because the bigger your company gets, the more important it is that all employees disseminate your company profile properly, so your brand can be easily recognized.

The people framing this into internal Turkish politics make the domestic profile and the domestic market of Turkish Airlines way too important. Turkish Airlines is a global player. It’s not Islamization that you see, it’s plain capitalism. You know, the same ideology that got the company into trouble with workers unions.

And the stewardesses who complained about the red lipstick ban by putting pictures of themselves online with red lipstick? Really, if you wanted to pursue a career in which you have the right to express your individuality with your outfit, you should have chosen another profession.

1 reply
  1. Osman Coşkunoğlu
    Osman Coşkunoğlu says:

    1. “It is perfectly normal for an airline to decide how its staff looks.” Really?! Every detail?! Then: “… in the air …, you are not supposed to be a personality in your own right” Personality?! The issue is a simple & most commonly used red lipstick, not a wild tatoo.
    2. “So why is the lipstick affair news?” It was news in the NYT also. Share your painstakingly developed answer with NYT, see what they’ll say.
    3. “Islamization scare…” Yes, most Turks are scared of islamization. Empathy: Europe solved fundamentalist problem 4-5 centuries ago but Since Hitler is relatively new horror, Europeans are scared of racism. Remember the European reaction to democratically elected Jorg Haider?
    4. “Lipstick decision” that you painstaking defend is controversial even among the top mgmt in THY; between CEO Kotil and chairman of board Topçu


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