New Book from Misra, Walters Explores Inequalities in Retail

Walking Mannequins Book Cover


“Walking Mannequins: How Race and Gender Inequalities Shape Retail Clothing Work” (University of California Press, 2022), written by Joya Misra, professor of sociology and public policy, and Kyla Walters, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Sonoma State University (and UMass Ph.D. alum), explores the world of corporate-imposed beauty standards on its workers. Through their research, Misra and Walters found that fashion companies reinforce gendered and racial beauty standards by regulating workers’ size, look, and interactions with customers.

While Misra and Walters were initially interested in the idea of “aesthetic labor” – the time and effort spent by employees to “look and perform the part” – it became increasingly clear that corporate analytics also played a role in how employers treat workers. Major brands use electronic surveillance systems to monitor transactions and store traffic constantly, making decisions affecting employees based on the data, taking control out of the hands of in-store managers. Kyla Walters explains, “Companies monitor every keystroke, every sale in real-time. In many places, corporate tells store-level managers whether they should send workers home or call in extra workers based on data being delivered to them through analytics.”


The result is a work environment that is nothing short of miserable. Retail workers have limited freedom to interact with customers in a way that makes sense, thanks to scripted greetings and sales lines, leading to robotic interactions. Workers also have to adopt a uniform look, including at some stores, white-associated hairstyles. Store managers, secret shoppers, and customer surveys are responsible for ensuring that all employees look and act the part, including wearing the store’s branded clothing. The expectation is that employees will look and act according to brand – at their own expense – while also handling inconsistent work schedules and paychecks.

Read the full article from SBS Communications and join the Sociology department in celebrating the book's launch on March 30th for a virtual event and panel discussion.