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Research Blog: #WaitressesToo: How do waitresses deal with sexualization?

by Jenn Chmielewski

I was seventeen when I started my first and only waitressing job. It didn’t take long before I started to feel uncomfortable with the way some customers were treating me. At first it was the men who would call me honey or cutie with a creepy smile. Rather than remind the customer that my name was Jenn and that I was not sweet and did not find their comments cute, I sucked it up and smiled. After all, I needed my tip. I didn’t like it but I chalked it up to them thinking they were being playful.

But over time I started getting more invasive comments and questions, like asking whether or not I had a boyfriend or telling me what a “gorgeous” girl I was that I must have guys lining up… I hated it and never knew how to respond. I couldn’t offend them or I would lose out on that money I was trying to earn to pay for college. But I also couldn’t stand smiling and laughing as customers made me feel like all that mattered was how attractive I was. I would end up flustered and anxious. I felt powerless to do anything about it.

And when I vented to the other older and more seasoned waitresses about how frustrated I felt, I found out that they felt powerless too. They told me that they had all experienced much worse: men (both customers and co-workers and the boss) coming onto them or asking them about their sex lives or groping them. And they just felt they needed to deal with it as a normal part of their job. They empathized with me but basically just told me I would get used to it. I didn’t. Once I started college, I quit working at the restaurant, but for so many women in this profession, I wonder how they deal with it.

Now, at this point in my life I know that basically anyone who identifies as a woman probably experiences sexual harassment a lot. And the #metoo movement has brought the insidious and rampant sexual assault and harassment of women into the national dialogue. At SPARK! Research we have written about sexual objectification as trauma, how it can make our brains freeze, and lead to eating disorders. And there are some environments that have heightened levels of sexual objectification.

So what are the consequences if your profession demands being made to feel like a piece of meat? Research has shown that female waitresses at Hooters feel sexually degraded on the daily but that they need the money and so they put up with it.[1] I only needed the money until I got to college and could find a different summer job. But even knowing it was short-term, I still felt anxious and uncomfortable and sometimes sick to my stomach while I worked at a restaurant where I was fully clothed.

Well, researchers Dawn Szymanski and Renee Mikorski[2] continue to study these issues with waitresses. They examine restaurants that encourage sexual objectification (what they call sexually objectifying restaurant environments, SOREs) and the psychological impact they have on the waitresses who work there. In a brand new study, they wondered whether sexualizing restaurant environments would be related to anxiety for waitresses, especially for waitresses who feel that they don’t have much power to do anything about the situation.

They surveyed 252 waitresses across the U.S., asking them to rate how sexualized they felt at their restaurant (like whether they were encouraged to wear revealing clothing and whether male customers stare at female servers). They also reported how much organizational power women held in their restaurant (like whether managers/owners were male or female), how much personal power they felt they had to prevent negative experiences at work, as well as how much anxiety and disordered eating they experienced.

It turns out that working in a sexualized restaurant really doesn’t seem to be healthy for women. The waitresses who worked in more sexualized environments were more at risk for anxiety and disordered eating. And waitresses who felt they had less personal and organizational power within the workplace, were at an even greater risk of these negative consequences.

It makes sense: if you are in an environment where you do not receive support or feel like you can’t do anything about the harassment or sexualization you experience, you will probably feel worse. I know that my anxiety with weird customers was driven by the fact that I felt like I had no power to do anything about it. And the other women who worked there and needed the job also probably felt helpless. The managers were all men and they offered no support (sometimes they were the harassers!)

Most women are at risk of experiencing sexual harassment or sexualization from men at some point in their lives, whether it is at work, school, in the street, the subway, or even from our partners. It is hard enough to deal with catcalls without having to constantly serve dinner and drinks with a smile and laugh to male customers who judge and grab waitresses’ bodies. Lots of women depend on these jobs to pay the bills and we shouldn’t just let them take for granted that Hooters is going to be a degrading place to work. If waitresses can connect and support each other around these issues, then maybe change can happen from within organizations. And those of us who go to restaurants rather than work there should see how we can support making these sexualized restaurants less objectifying and/or stepping in if we ever see a waitress being mistreated on the job; just as we should come together to fight injustice we see happening anywhere.

[1] Moffitt, L.B., Szymanski, D.M. (2011). Experiencing sexually objectifying environments: A qualitative study. The Counseling Psychologist, 39, 67-106.

[2] Szymanski, D. M., & Mikorski, R. (2017). Sexually objectifying environments: Power, rumination, and waitresses’ anxiety and disordered eating. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 41, 314-324.

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