Myself during a break in the shift. May, 2108 in Birmingham.

Sexism in Service: My Story of Being a Feminist and a Waitress in 2021

My story is far from being original. On the contrary, my story is that of the vast majority of women who, like me, have been or are waitresses. Since the age of 16, I have worked in four different restaurants in three European countries. The languages, the cultures, the dishes change but the golden rule remains operative. The rule that gives customers the ultimate power to order. The same rule that demands total submission from the waitress and the waiter. From then on, this universal, yet, ordinary usage draws the contours of the behaviour of the customers and the personnel.

Disclaimer:

  • This article only mentions male customers for the sole and only reason that I have only received sexist comments from men and never from women clients.
  • The anecdotes in italics are comments that were personally addressed to me over the last 6 years in restaurants.

The fundamental sexist rule

This socially accepted rule of dominance is similar to the reality that women face in society. An uncompromising reality where women must accept their inferior status or suffer the misogynistic consequences that fall upon them.

Working as a female waitress reveals a dual disadvantage; being a service provider and a sexual object. The waitress is immersed in a work environment where sexism reigns. Whether in the restaurant or in the kitchen, the rules of service are methodically written by the pen of machismo.

“As I brought the bill to the couple I served, the woman got up to go to the toilet. The man, taking advantage of his wife’s absence, allowed himself to put his hand on my buttocks. After all, why not? He couldn’t have known that I was only 16 years old and that the thought of his hands on my body disgusted me deeply. Nor could he have known that it was inconceivable for me to allow him to do this and that I would throw his glass of red wine at him.” 

A black and white image of me in uniform, sitting outside the restaurant I work at on a plastic crate, with a lit cigarette in my hand
Me, during a break in my shift. May 2018, Birmingham. Credit image: Jordan. D

Six years have passed since this happened but the regime of ordinary sexism still rules the restaurants. 

After all, it is not too difficult to conceptualise the abiding presence of sexism in restaurants . 

Performing the domestic task

Being a waitress systematically implies being at the service of the customer. This servitude, therefore, involves absolute subservience to their demands.

A woman holds her tray and prepares to serve a customer who is not looking at her
A waitress faces a male customer who reads his newspaper. Credit image: Waitress Movie

The waitress lives by the orders she receives. Indeed, she receives an order that she must satisfy. The waitress is at the service of customers but, above all, at the service of a man. Hence, personal service, although specific to the context of the restaurant, places  the woman in a position of subordination to her male counterparts.

“Good evening, what would you like to eat this evening?”

A customer: “You”

Intrinsically, the woman fulfils the traditional standards that imply her duty to feed her husband by bringing food to the table. Thus, waitressing, after all, involves women in servitude performing the domestic task of providing food while the man receives what is due to him. 

A customer: “I hope the food will be as good as the waitress who brings it”

Appearance

Appearance is obviously a criterion that comes into play when trying to assess the damage of sexism. The type of clothing I wear has a significant impact on the way customers talk to me, look at me and understand the customer/waitress relationship.
Personally, I prefer to wear trousers and a white shirt. Not only do I feel freer to move around, but I have also noticed that customers are more likely to view me professionally when I wear trousers, much to the chagrin of my bosses and colleagues, who told me many times;

“You are so much prettier when you are feminine.” 

“Don’t hesitate to unbutton your shirt more. You’ll definitely get more tips.” 

“High waistlines don’t suit you at all. Wear a skirt, it will make you slimmer”.   

“The shorter your skirt is, the more tips you’ll get”

Inevitably, when asked about clothing on duty, the answer is the skirt. Many establishments require their female employees to wear a skirt as well as heels. It is a matter of traditional dress codes. It is also about the impression that customers will have of the establishment. Waitresses in skirts are preferred to waitresses in trousers because it is more attractive.

Five waitresses lined up in skirts and heels.They are all identically dressed and have the same way of crossing their legs. The floor is tiled, indicating their presence in a kitchen
Five waitresses lined up in skirts and heels. Credit image: Sulheki

“Can I lift your skirt to see what’s underneath?

“You’d better watch out honey. When you bend down, I have a splendid view! I only say that for you. Personally, I am the happiest of men”.

Accessories

The accessories are a considerable asset. Make-up and skirts both contribute to the fulfilment of the cliché of the charming and sexy waitress. Both highlight the idea of what a woman should be. The woman is refined, sophisticated and flawless in terms of appearance.

“You are so much more beautiful when you smile with lipstick on.”

“Maybe you should be wearing make-up today. You look tired.”

Personally, I have always had an unconditional respect for my female colleagues who wore heels on duty. Indeed, it is well known that waiters and waitresses travel dozens of kilometres per shift. So beware of anyone who invites me to wear heels to run this daily marathon. Because yes, I am not paid to parade around. I am paid to take the customer’s order and bring them the desired dish as smoothly as possible.

The uniform

Do the following test: go to Google and search for the word; “waitress”.
The images you will see are all women in sexy uniforms. The first picture is from an American show, the second is from the film “waitress” where a woman in uniform is seen carrying a cake while a man embraces her in a sensual manner. Thus, intrinsically, the collective imagination conceives the waitress in uniform as charming, smiling, helpful and obviously sexy.

If you do the research in French and type “serveuse”, you will see an advert from Alirexpresse for an erotic maintenance worker costume. Yes, I refuse to categorize this job as “cleaning lady”!

Two women are dressed in erotic waitress uniforms.They both hold a feather duster and have a large neckline, hand on hips and smiling eyes.
Two women are dressed in erotic waitress uniforms. Credit image: AliExpress

Moreover, the facts are there! The uniform of the waitress feeds fantasies, evoking the idea of submission.The culture of pornography certainly plays an important role in this categorisation of women in uniform as sexual objects.
The woman, in this outfit, would be nothing more than a subject of covetousness legitimising a behaviour of domination. This would allow men to touch them without their consent.

According to the sociologist Isabel Boni-Le Goff, “The lower you are on the social scale, the more sexist and restrictive expectations are“. Cleaners, hotel staff, waitresses etc. are not professions that rank high on the social ladder. The assumption is that the people, mostly women, in these ‘small’ jobs are more likely to accept sexual advances, inappropriate propositions etc. in order to rise socially. Thus, the clients who are being served by these people feel in a position of strength and superiority. Their behaviour will move down the scale of acceptability and respect, simply because waitresses are at the bottom of the social pyramid.

Intimacy

A service is sexually harassed by one of its clients.Two men are sitting and having a drink. One of them touches the waitress's buttocks. The waitress, who is carrying a tray, looks at him with great anger.
A waitress is being sexually harassed by one of her clients. Credit image: The Irish Times

The world of gastronomy contains several stages, several rhythms and thus, several atmospheres. While breakfasts are calm, lunches are hectic, then comes dinner. This privileged moment, marked by the end of an intense working day, is special. Customers drink more, indulge in seduction, and engage in gravelly jokes as they feel protected by the night which covers their sins. 

Henceforth, as soon as the sun goes down, the waitress is the collateral damage of the sudden intimacy that the night brings.

The Room Service Trap

To this metamorphosis in the behaviour of certain customers in the restaurant, we must add an element that is not the least important: room service.

A waitress bends over a table to clear it. She is smiling with a stare. She is dressed in short shorts and heels
The cover of the book “The Room Service”.
Credit image: Amazon

When a waitress goes to a customer’s room, she is even more vulnerable than in a restaurant. Not only is she alone in a room that is not her own, but also, and above all, she is entering into the complete privacy of the guests. This moment usually only takes a few seconds. Quick and efficient, one does not wish to drag out the passage in the room for obvious reasons. Once again, the pornography industry has not helped the establishment of a healthy relationship between waitress and customer. Many male customers imagine that they are the work of a shoddy script where the waitress, dressed in her traditional uniform, gives way to an actress ready to do anything to satisfy her customer’s deepest desires.

I have been asked many times to stay in the room to “keep the guests company”. I have also been asked to take off my tie to make me feel more comfortable and because the client gave me “permission”.

Even if these proposals are not systematic, they contribute to a deep unease. Indeed, being in a client’s room is like being in his house with its rules.

As the customer closed the door of his room, he jokingly told me “now you are all mine”.

The physical proximity

To the sudden intimacy of a hotel room, we must add the physical proximity of the customer-waitress relationship. Indeed, when the waitress approaches the customer to put down the dish, she enters his most intimate sphere. This security barrier, which every individual has, can only be crossed by those who are closest.
Crossing this intimate barrier implies a physical approach which, in some people’s minds, translates into a sensual act or an invitation.

While I was in the middle of a rush, I brought a customer his food. He looked at me for a long time and said, “I imagine your breasts must be wet because of the sweat. I have towels in my room if you wish. I can wipe you off”.

Another customer, as I approached him to give him his dessert, whispered in my ear: “You smell so good, can you stay close to me for longer? I can smell you all night long”.

Tips matter

On average, when I work as a waitress, the tips I receive represent a quarter of my salary. This makes a huge difference at the end of the month. If it is absolutely essential to be polite and professional in all jobs, this rule of basic civility is even more important in the hospitality business. Both the waitress and the waiter have to work hard to maintain a good relationship with the customers.
They are expected to be pleasant and to listen to the needs of the customer and thus, to get as many tips as possible.
The more pleasant and smiling they are, the more tips the customer will give them.

A panel by illustrator Charlotte Mullin, denouncing sexism in the restaurant industry.
A panel by illustrator Charlotte Mullin, denouncing sexism. Credit image: DH les Sports

For many, the waitress, in particular, must have a seductive attitude towards the male customer. The waitress must be smiling, charming etc. “The more you smile, the more tips you’ll get” my boss once told me.
As for me, I smile naturally. It is part of my character, my personality and my DNA. I like to be friendly with people around me and even with strangers. This is a certain asset in the service.

Selling a Service

The question that one should ask himself or herself is what are you willing to accept for money?  To my greatest astonishment, I am willing to accept a lot.

The more pleasant I am with customers, the more generous they will be towards me. By pleasant, I mean never contradicting or upsetting a customer. Indeed, little by little, without realising it, this irreproachable attitude led me to laugh at degrading jokes, to keep quiet when clients publicly humiliated me with dirty words, to accept that people call me little names such as “my darling”, “my little one”, “my beautiful”, “honey”, “babe” etc. Why then, I, who strive every day to defend the values of feminism, accepted to be verbally abused?

A woman with a muzzled mouth.The photo is in black and white. The woman's eyes cannot be distinguished. We can only see her thick black hair
A woman with a muzzled mouth. Credit image: Huffpost

Most of the time, I submitted to these unofficial rules out of fatigue, out of a desire to earn more tips, and all too often out of discouragement and exhaustion.

At the end of my shift, I began to feel a dirtiness permeating me, a pervasive form of shame. At a time when I was writing feminist articles, shouting for gender equality, I was accepting humiliation as a woman. This complacency made me deeply uncomfortable. Yes indeed, I was earning a lot of money, but I had this intense feeling of being used, of earning this money in an undignified way. I was selling a service. A service that necessarily implied submission, acceptance of my condition as a woman, and irrevocably complacency with patriarchy.

Some may be surprised to think that I preferred a generous tip to my dignity as a woman. Let me prove you wrong.

Serving feminism on a plate

Let us not oppose feminism and the acceptance of money in exchange for a service. Feminism implies the absolute emancipation of women and the possibility for them to exercise their freedom in the same way as men do. Making money on the back of sexism does not make a feminist a woman who denies her deepest values. A female prostitute can be a feminist, just as a waitress can be. What is damaging is that a woman feels forced into submission by lack of choice and by external pressure, such as that of capitalism.

A woman tries to tighten the screws of the capitalist machine to counteract patriarchy
Yesterday’s Patriarchy is Today’s Capitalism. Credit image: Latuff (Voice of Margin)

I submit my entire body to the sexist and misogynistic rules imposed by society in order to deconstruct them later. If I had the opportunity to work within UNWOMEN to defend my convictions, I would do so. In the meantime, I have to earn money to finance my studies and thus, claim a job where my convictions will be in perfect harmony with my professional environment.

If submitting to sexism can allow me to destroy it later, then yes, I will continue to laugh at the dirty jokes of misogynistic clients and to keep quiet when my gender is humiliated.

After all, “customer is king”

In many ways, tipped women workers are made vulnerable because they depend on the relationship they have with the customers. This dependent liaison not only makes them more exposed to sexism but also, less likely to fight back.

Indeed, the first rule a person learns when entering a restaurant as a waiter/waitress is that the customer is king. Consequently, it is de rigueur to accept his whims, his thoughts and his inappropriate remarks because, after all, he orders and we serve. This rule is known by all; customers and staff alike. Therefore, everyone acts accordingly. This has consequences.

Provocative photo exposes sexism that muzzles women in the workplace
A photo exposes sexism that muzzles women in the workplace. Credit picture: Terrafemina

Dozens of coworkers, chefs, and customers witnessed me being sexually harassed and did nothing.When reactions were finally forthcoming, it was to laugh about it.

“This dude really likes you”

“I don’t know what you did to him, but it appears to be good.”

There were several occasions where someone could have intervened but the basic rule of customer superiority is still too ingrained to rebel against.

Hence, from now on, it should no longer be a question of perpetuating the tradition that the customer is always right, but rather the one which implies that all human beings, regardless of their gender, have the same rights. 

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