When we look at women who work, what remains unseen and what is expected to remain hidden?
and a workwear logo I’ve only seen on my Dad’s utility jacket, sold nearby at more than double the cost. Outfits as fashionable tools to accommodate on-the-go lifestyles around town.
I can tell it is important that I see them in this way, that I see them as nothing less than polished. Because when I ask about their beauty routines, they respond with, you don’t want to know.
After a few moments of rephrasing the same question in an attempt to get a different answer, I move on.
What if you could repair your beauty from the consequences of your city life? I ask.
I hold up an advertisement.
Eyes dart to eight gel capsules, displayed as shiny, ingestible emerald gems.
I read the description: Introducing Urban Detox(reader, this is real), from the makers of the anti-wrinkle pill (also, real). Clinically proven to mend hair, skin, and nails from the strains of the atmosphere.
I ask for reactions and hear the women say words that end in -ing: revitalizing and regenerating and purifying. Someone tells me, convenience is everything and that this would help her look good while working hard.
I ask about the model in the ad. She is wearing a business casual blazer, her brunette tresses blowing over her shoulder as the grey blur of the train passes by.
They love her. She has the glass skin they dream of—the even-toned, exceptionally smooth, lustrous face so fair and flawless it sparkles like crystal. She has the kind of complexion that only blemish-free influencers possess. You don’t have the careers these participants have without good skin. Imagine how far they could go with glass skin.
There is one issue. The scene isn’t . . . believable. Someone with glass skin does not take public transportation.
Maybe her secret is this pill, someone adds, suggesting that the model slipped a few in her pocket.
There is another pause, as these working women of Manhattan are not easily sold. During moderating, I often ask, what do you hope to see? when I detect hesitation. This is code for What’s missing? Now participants aren’t sure how to know if the product is effective.
So I pose this same question and hear, I want to see polluted hair, and show me smog laced cuticles.
The women want to see the invisible threats lurking in the city, waiting to compromise the image they have worked so hard to assemble.
Everyone begins reexamining the ad, looking for evidence of invisible threats, the product, and whether it is possible for this model to exist in real life. They reexamine the photographs of themselves too for comparison. When we look at women who work, what remains unseen and what is expected to remain hidden?
With market research on hiatus, I have spent much of the past eight months inside, fixated on protecting myself from the unseen. Along with compulsively soaking in the tub, I have gone through phases of wiping down groceries, and frequenting the laundromat to remove traces of the city from my bedsheets and towels.
Like most who are adjusting to our new indoor lives, I hardly venture out. My days consist of monitoring the movement of others from my front window. I watch the dog-walkers and the delivery trucks that ignore the speed bump in the center of the block. I count the number of times a neighbor receives a package and the boxes that arrive for me.
As of late, many of my packages have been purveyed through click-thru ads selling a defense against the same villain: outside. Silver linens that repel both microbes and acne-causing bacteria, and silk masks known to block the tiniest of airborne particles without friction-induced facial injuries. Brands recognize that it isn’t enough for us to worry about exposure to environmental contaminants for our health but also how environmental contamination will impact the way we look.
This marketing tactic didn’t rise up out of the pandemic. I have been helping brands label themselves as protection from our urban ecosystems for years: primers to protect follicles from water damage, anti-UV face pastes, anti-pollution drops that defend skin from smoke and gas.
But while I’m aware of my uptick in online purchases, the accumulation of cardboard is embarrassing. So, I wait until the sun sets to take out the trash, and in the morning, watch my landlord stack our buildings’ recyclables for pickup.
Since March, residential streets have been inundated with an influx of garbage. As areas report volume increases in refuse, so increases the strain on the nation’s largest sanitation department and its workers—a profession cited as the fifth most dangerous occupation in the country by a 2019 Bureau of Labor analysis. Now with the additional risk of Covid-19, workers are expected to haul more with less: less protective gear, less funding, less public support. All while taking care of the primary aspect of the city that everyone else does not want to see.
If anyone knows what it means to see this city, it is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a New York-based artist who has dedicated her entire career to documenting the unseen labor that keeps New York alive. In 1979, Ukeles began a year-long performance of shaking the hands of all 8,500 employees of the New York City Sanitation Department, thanking them for their service. Her aim, then, was to remind her audience that this is a human system; that “when you throw something ‘out,’” as she writes, “there is no ‘out.’” There is a human being on the other side. A prescient message that recently resurfaced in a new public art installation this September.
I first noticed “For ⟶ forever . . .” by chance at the Nassau G station in Brooklyn. I approached the platform at the sound of the closing doors, and instead of running, walked slowly as the train pulled away. This was my first ride since the spring, an excuse to leave the apartment, and I was more enthusiastic than anxious.
Adjacent eyes were fixed on phones; faces covered with masks. As I gazed across the tracks, a flash of orange from a digital screen lit up like a flare. My attention stayed on the screen and white scripted font appeared against a black background, as if someone were writing a note: “Dear Service Worker, ‘Thank you for keeping NYC alive!’ For ⟶ forever.”
The use of quotations, in combination with animated handwriting, was unusual—an intimate note in motion. The fifteen-second video was silent, but I heard Ukeles’ voice in my head as the words “Thank You” appeared. I envisioned her still in uniform from her 1970s performance, her bushy strawberry-blonde mane moving along her shoulders as she is thanking and shaking and thanking and shaking hands.
The orange flashes followed me, lighting up screens at Court Street station, then at Times Square. On my return to Brooklyn, an MTA member watched me watch the screen before retrieving a yellow mop bucket partially blocking my view.
The film is intended as a direct message to those who sustain the mass transportation and sanitation systems—the unseen workers—but is it reaching its intended audience? Who is this message really for? What does Ukeles want me to see?
As a moderator, I am trained to be the all-knowing observer. The person who sees everything in front of and behind the two-way mirror. And in a position with heightened visibility, I have a hallmark trait in all that I do: discretion. I slide product details into conversation with the same ease as inconspicuously alerting a respondent before anyone else has time to notice a blouse button gone missing. Discretion is one of the most valuable skills of a working woman, because once learned, she can maintain the appearance of not only herself but her surroundings and anything within her proximity. Because for working women, our personal image is one of the few things of which we have control.
I am reminded of this need to maintain when I encounter photographs of Ukeles: a series of pictures shot on sanitation routes, her luscious sandy curls that remain intact as she lifts trash bags, walks with the truck, stands in dump fields, and makes glove-to-glove contact.
I am also reminded of this need to maintain when I call my mom, who usually answers the phone from her desk at a midwestern food processing plant. She vents to me about how many months it’s been since she was able to safely see the woman who cuts her hair, because, if she has to continue breathing the stale air, cleaning up after the employee appreciation lunches, endangering her health for the wellbeing of the company, she would rather not do so with split ends.
She tells me my hometown has a trash problem too, as garbage removal in Saint Joseph, Missouri, is solely managed through private companies. My parents subscribe to a family-owned and operated service called Garbology. No public sanitary service is available as there is in New York; everyone must handle their own trash. Many cannot afford a private option and have turned to hoarding, illegal burning, creatively ditching in parks or near highways.
Cities, like corporations, have chosen to not see the humans in their systems. It is a privilege to disavow ownership of your own waste, not look at it, not touch it. An even greater privilege to dissociate from it altogether once it is in someone else’s hands; a privilege in choosing between what you do and do not wish to see.
In the photographs of Ukeles that I have come across, her hair stands out. Her entire physical appearance is difficult to not make note of. In a picture from an early performance Dusting a Baffle (1971), we see Ukeles, thirty-one years old as she wipes a transparent vinyl curtain with a rag, her eyes emphasized with what resembles dark liner, her lips appearing glossed, her locks voluminous and cascading down the front of a white dress. As a new mother when this photo was taken, she demonstrates the unacknowledged time and toil in domestic care.
Images from her Touch Sanitation performance show Ukeles in a baby pink-colored jumpsuit: the sleeves cuffed to accentuate her sharp elbows and small frame, the pant legs wide and also rolled exposing her ankle and low-top Adidas classics. Other images from this series show her in a denim jumpsuit with a nylon pink belt flapping off her right hip. And of course, her picture-perfect auburn curls in place.
No beads of sweat, no slicked-back braid or messy bun. There also is no documentation of the time it took for her to curate her appearance for each performance. The labor of maintaining her hair, her face, her outfit, her body, while maintaining a family, a job, a city, a career as an artist. There are layers of labor that must remain hidden in order for us to be seen as women who can have it all.
It is a privilege to disavow ownership of your own waste . . . in choosing between what you do and do not wish to see.
After I discovered Touch Sanitation, I began searching for a photograph of Ukeles presenting herself in some way other than poised and polished. I scour archives of her work, study film reels from museums and previous exhibits, YouTube videos of her speaking on panels and still am not satisfied with the image of the woman shown. What does this say about me? Why have I become so invested in locating an imperfect version of this woman who I admire?
Perhaps, it is because of her artistic accomplishments, and to be an accomplished woman and maintain a flawless appearance, seems unattainable. It’s what we—the women in the focus groups, clients, myself—strive for daily.
I find it difficult to imagine any woman who isn’t also consumed with documenting her own self-image. Unlike her contemporaries and many female artists coming up in the same era, Ukeles asserts the female gaze without pointing the camera at her person.
I wanted to uncover a narrative of a woman who, like me, hides her getting-ready-process, but instead continue to see a woman who is more interested in interrogating her role within the larger systems of humanity.
Do we even need this? asks a respondent.
You tell me, I say, which always gets a laugh.
Unable to show visual renderings of the ominous environmental threats, I turn their attention to packaging options. They debate over whether the bottle should be a deep, sophisticated shade of green or a from-the-earth green. As they assess color connotations, they become enamored with the subtlety of the pill and what possibilities lie in a solution they can gulp down with one swallow of water.
OK, it’s decided, they tell me. We need it.
Is this what you had hoped to see? I ask.
They do not look at me or the model in the ad. Instead, their eyes rest on the pack of shiny green capsules on the table until I thank them for their time.
What is it that I hope to see?
If I stepped outside, pressed the arches of my feet flat against the pavement and walked. Counted the steps, counted the trees, the feral cats and ones perched in windows, counted the pigeons and squirrels, and I can’t forget the dogs. Crunched the leaves, smelled the smells—Bounty and vinegar and yeast—avoided my reflection in storefronts. Broke down boxes with my paperskin thumbs, brushed several loose flaxen strands from my shoulder and watched as they floated out into traffic.
KATIY HEATH is an essayist from Saint Joseph, Missouri. Her obsessions include women who bathe, women who work, and women who witness. She currently is writing a memoir about her experience moderating focus groups for skincare companies. Read more from her at CHEAP POP, Pigeon Pages, and XRAY Lit.