Naidu, “Glaring invisibility: Dressing the body of the female cleaner”

I’ve been teaching more South African ethnographic work lately, and I just came across a great paper about outsourced campus cleaning staff at the University of KwaZulu Natal. Maheshvari Naidu‘s 2009 Glaring invisibility: dressing the body of the female cleaner is a particularly rich feminist ethnography of how black African women cleaning staff relate to their mandatory work uniforms. The bottom line is easy to convey: They don’t like them. Yet they are required to wear them.

Much of the paper thus tries to unpack the lived experience of people required to wear a uniform that signifies low status: a uniform that signifies uniformity, that signifies the devaluation of domestic work, that signifies the vulnerability of workers to the power of management, that signifies the permanent availability of the cleaning workforce to any passerby who may want to command their services. And yet: it is a uniform that is integrated into an affective rhythm of everyday life, into a larger economy of gendered practice and appearance.

The university in question is a decidedly post-Apartheid institution, formed (by its own account) out of a merger of an Apartheid-era racialized campus (the University College for Indians) and the somewhat older University of Natal (historically a predominantly white space, although also home to a medical school for “African, Indian and Coloured students”). It has had quite substantial diversity/racial transformation initiatives since 1994 (see bibliography below).

Naidu’s paper begins with an observation from a student’s lived experience:

The catalyst for this paper was the observation by a female student that cleaners daily and routinely arrive at the University by buses and taxis dressed in their full casual day wear. The next time staff and students have the occasion to see the women, they have donned the standard uniform of blue and green button-down dress and apron ensemble, which they then wear for the next eight and half hours, until the end of the work day.

Cleaners experienced these uniforms as making them “look old” or “feel like a nobody,” as “too ugly” or “really not very nice.” There was a fear that the uniforms would elicit scorn in the community were one to wear it to work (“they would laugh at me”). Naidu says of Princess, one of her 55 cleaners, that “it was clear that she would never entertain the idea of wearing the uniform for any time longer than was absolutely necessary, or outside of where it was absolutely necessary.” In spite of small efforts to accessorize — for instance with earrings — the management prohibited makeup or other signs of nonuniformity. It seems that the predominant desire, faced with a uniform that identifies you with a deindividualizing and stigmatized role, was to want to reassert individuality. Naidu eventually describes the uniform as “almost a bodily tattoo” (132).

But — and here Naidu is brilliantly sensitive to the liminal zones of ordinary life, to the fact that experience is a sequence of intense contrasts — you can only really understand the function of the uniforms by seeing how people feel when they take them off. Thus:

When asked if they felt different soon after changing, most women unhesitating said “Yes, it’s nice to wear my clothes”. One woman looked down at her dress and said “It’s old but nice and my daughter bought it for me … it makes me look and feel nice.” A few women did not seem to understand what I meant by “feel different”, although they commented that they could not wear their “nice” earrings or “anything pretty like that with the uniform”. When asked why they “just did not change at home” forty-four year old grandmother of four, Lindiwe from Ntzuma was forthright and said that she felt “pretty in my own clothes”, but that she felt “like an aunty in the uniform”. She added, “People will laugh if I wear the uniform. I don’t want people to see me in the uniform.” She then commented, “Hey, I don’t want to see the uniform too much”.

There is something radically performative about the form of womanhood that emerges here. The same person, the same body, can change radically in age, in beauty, in comfort-in-her-skin. This transformation is effected without drama but not without feeling, through the “habitual routinised performance” of changing clothes at the end of the shift. This moment of increased comfort — where you wear your own clothes again — is nevertheless not a moment of pure escape from social constraint. As Naidu points out, cleaners typically are subjected to the double burden or second shift that feminist scholars have long documented. “Some of the women did eventually confess despondently that they went home and had to ‘cook and clean again'” (132). In this sense, paid work as a cleaner is only a particular moment in a larger system of gendered labor.

Meanwhile, echoing similar findings in Magolda and Delman’s study of U.S.-based campus cleaners, cleaners’ daytime work experience involves highly asymmetrical emotional dynamics. Students and staff greet the cleaners fairly regularly, and know their names, but the interactions rarely go beyond superficial greetings. The cleaners’ very bodily existence is supposed to be kept marginal in spaces that center academics’ bodies:

The women inhabit and move their bodies in various ways through differently experienced demarcated coordinates of space. They are comfortable when they are with fellow co-workers in their staff room, but feel that “they must work quietly in the lecturers’ offices”. Women like Jabu and Futhi mentioned that the lecturers are “nice” and “some ask how we are, they know our names … but after we say good morning … we start working … we don’t talk too much.” (135)

Another cleaner commented that she was permanently afraid of dropping or damaging the author’s own office decorations. And to be a bit autobiographical, if I think about the cleaner who works in my own academic department in Stellenbosch University, she carefully arranges to clean the lecturers’ offices early in the morning (before 7:30) to avoid ever having to enter the offices while we’re there. (So it isn’t only in UKZN that this is an issue.)

I liked this paper for its methodological breadth — 55 women were interviewed, which makes this a rather large research population by many ethnographers’ standards — and for its remarkable capacity to trace the delicate equilibrium between discipline and resistance in the workplace, between little subversions and the norm of “docile-utility” women’s bodies. I’m teaching the paper this week in a class session on social strategies, and I recommend to teachers, as well as to scholars of academic labor. The more one reflects on how cleaners’ bodies are reified as a symbol of work discipline, the less one can take one’s own “workplace look” for granted.

The uniform subjectified the women into being highly visible, conspicuous, and thus plastically malleable to particular behaviours deemed acceptable for work. The uniform also disciplined the women into objects of surveillance by themselves and management at work. And lastly, the single-layered cleaners’ uniform-dress worked against the women’s aesthetic sense of being and feeling “pretty”. The uniform acted instead to transcribe homogeneity and strip away the complex multi-layers of their personalities inside the work space, further reifying and naturalising their status as cleaners. (137)

It’s interesting to reflect on the ways that this analysis does and doesn’t apply to other categories of university workers. There are different, but also massively gendered, norms that apply to professional academics. These norms often preclude feminine “prettiness,” which can get read as “not serious,” i.e. not masculine. As Francesca Stavrakopoulou writes in the UK context, “masculine dress is the standard academic uniform, for academia remains an overtly male domain. As a result, female academics find their appearance scrutinised in ways a male colleague would rarely encounter.”

So even the lecturers/academic staff/faculty do not work in a zone of total freedom in terms of workplace fashion. But the level of surveillance and image standardization imposed by a work uniform is radically different from the “class individuality” that professors are supposed to address. In that sense, the cleaners’ uniforms only reinforce, in silhouette, the hyper-individuality demanded (paradoxically) from the academic class.

I hope that Naidu one day does a study of lecturers’ outfits as well!

Durrheim, Kevin, Kirsty Trotter, Laurence Piper, and Desiree Manicom. 2004. “From Exclusion to Informal Segregation: The Limits to Racial Transformation at the University of Natal.” Social Dynamics 30 (1): 141–69.
Govinder, Kesh S., Nombuso P. Zondo, and Malegapuru W. Makgoba. 2013. “A New Look at Demographic Transformation for Universities in South Africa.” South African Journal of Science 109 (11–12): 1–11.
Naidu, Maheshvari. 2009. “Glaring Invisibility: Dressing the Body of the Female Cleaner.” Anthropology Southern Africa 32 (3–4): 128–38.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

4 thoughts on “Naidu, “Glaring invisibility: Dressing the body of the female cleaner””

  1. A very interesting review of what clearly in a great piece of critical ethnography. Thanks. As suggested, this could be extended in all kinds of ways. Being in academia in one way or another since 1960, I have seen all kinds of dress and uniform trends come and go. Sport coat and tie to attend graduate seminars, to lecture to undergrads, to meet friends for dinner and then the radicality of blue jeans… Class, status, and gender markers galore.

    One student years ago in an introductory ethnography took on an observational prompt to observe someone else and try to figure out how much you can learn by looking without talking. She wrote a description of how a particular female student in a coffee bar was dressed. It took 2 pages laced with brand names, models, prices and left me dizzy. Cleary the clothing was intentional but the observer was also in the know. I would have noticed next to nothing had I been the observer. Now I at least know that I am missing alot, sitting here in my old Levis and house slippers.

    1. Thanks for the interesting reflections, Davydd. What exactly did the “radicality of blue jeans” consist of, actually? I think this must have been years before my time.

  2. When I was a kid, Levis were a uniform for working class and farmhands and for school kids. Never worn to church or to any formal occasions. In college, we wore a sport coat and tie to dinner and in graduate school, slacks and a sport coat and tie. Shifting to jeans in those contexts was supposedly a big expression of radicalism. At Cornell until at least 1980, we wore sport coats and ties to teach, though we could show our political colors by wearing jeans or cords. Dress codes are just as coercive now but the clothes involved have changed. I am not sure I could remember how to tie a necktie at this point. Does that answer your question?

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