I was sixteen when I got my first restaurant job. I had no experience beyond a few months of work at a local nursing home, which entailed washing dishes and serving food to the residents – and was nothing like working in an actual restaurant. Still, I’d heard that the owner liked to hire cute teenage girls, so I hobbled in and applied (I was on crutches, still recovering from a foot fracture). Despite the fact that I was totally unqualified (and couldn’t even walk at the time) I got the job.
I immediately loved the fast pace, the camaraderie among the staff, the free food. Although I’d been hired as a hostess and busser, it wasn’t long before I’d weaseled my way into the kitchen as a prep cook: I learned kitchen lingo, knife skills, how to make stock and crème brûlée. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the constant commentary on the bodies of the female staff or the sexist jokes; I was just thrilled to be working in a restaurant.
To the men (and, sometimes, women) who evaluate women’s bodies, make sexualized remarks, and participate in a hyper-masculine culture with the objectification of women as a defining characteristic, it’s just harmless fun. I know: I’ve been a woman who participates in it. I worked as a cook throughout my teens and early twenties, and my desire to fit in with the boys (most professional kitchens are overwhelmingly male) prompted me to lewd observations and rude remarks: (female) celebrities I’d like to fuck, which of the servers had a nice rack. Not only did engaging in this kind of banter help me to fit in, I felt like it insulated me from being a target of it: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Many years and a college degree later, I still work in the restaurant industry – and sexism at work is still part of my daily life. Now, though, I’m much more attuned to and bothered by it. At sixteen, my top priorities were being accepted and learning the business, in that order. I hadn’t yet been steeped in feminist theory, and couldn’t care less about the ways in which the patriarchy affected my lived experience. I wanted to be perceived as a tough, competent badass, and strove to differentiate myself from the cute, objectification-ready front-of-house staff.
Now that I’m older, wiser, and working as a server myself, my perspective has shifted: hearing a man at my job talk about how much he’d like to spank the hot new wine rep makes my skin crawl. But, instead of telling him how uncomfortable it is to hear comments like that, how icky and creeped-out they make me feel, I keep my mouth shut.
After I shared the news of my pregnancy at work, remarks about my body became a regular thing. While the women I work with generally confine themselves to pointing out that I’m “glowing,” or that my baby bump is starting to show, the men have been particularly vociferous regarding the changes to my tits and ass (they’re getting bigger!).
As offensive as these comments can be, I don’t find it worthwhile to protest. Sexism, subtle and overt, is a part of my job that I’ve come to accept. As a server, I’m not just selling food and drinks. I’m selling myself. Part of that means looking good, putting up with the caprices of customers of all genders, and remaining accommodating and agreeable even when I’m being treated with flagrant disrespect. At this point in my life, avoiding conflict, preserving harmony with my coworkers, and making good money is more important than taking a righteous stance. Even though justice may be on my side, I’m frankly outnumbered in an environment that’s still informed by some pretty damn retrograde values.
That’s not to say that I won’t stand up against blatant sexual harassment. When someone at a former job repeatedly addressed sexual remarks specifically to me and, on one occasion, touched me inappropriately, I spoke up and told him to stop.
Instead of going to management, however, we worked it out with help from a sympathetic coworker who understood and respected us both. After a few very awkward weeks, we were able to put it behind us and resume a great working relationship. I’m aware that this outcome isn’t always feasible: but it worked for me, and I’m glad that I chose an approach grounded in pragmatism rather than idealism.
Despite its shittier aspects (there are more than a few), I love my job. I have the opportunity to make good money while interacting with a wide variety of people and expounding on one of my all-time favorite topics: food and wine. My schedule is flexible, allowing me time to write, hang out with my dog, and lounge around being pregnant and lazy for several hours each morning. I also really love my coworkers, who are, for the most part, genuinely great people – even if some of them missed the gender-sensitivity boat. Also: free food!
There’s definitely a time and a place to make a stand. But, over time, I’ve learned to pick my battles. Although I’m sometimes tempted to call out my coworkers for their boorish remarks, I know that it wouldn’t accomplish anything beyond making them feel attacked and defensive. Instead, by cultivating good working relationships, I’m making life easier and more fun for myself – while preparing my coworkers to be more receptive when I do decide to (gently, tactfully) introduce a feminist point of view.