This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.
Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.
When you work at an Irish bar, there's an expectation of sexuality aligned with your job. I come right from my desk job to my bar job, so whatever I'm wearing at the bar is what I wore at the office. I have a shapely body, so it's provocative in that you can see how I actually look, but really I'm wearing my same work clothes. I'm never like, Oh, I'm going to change from my crew neck T-shirt to a V-neck tee-shirt to work at the bar.
There's a suggested uniform, but honestly, I've never adhered to it. There are women there who wear collared shirts, but I was told, along with the other chesty females, that we could wear whatever we wanted.
It doesn't matter what you look like; someone is going to look at you sexually if you work at a bar or restaurant.
After working for four years at this bar, my feelings about my body and my sexuality have changed so dramatically. When I worked at my last Irish bar, I wore the same thing every day, and it was very revealing. I loved it—it was a college bar. I was having an illicit relationship with the owner, and I loved the attention I got from him, and I loved what I wore. But I think about that outfit now, and it was ridiculous. It was one of those black American Apparel long-sleeved T-shirt dresses with the back completely cut out, so my leopard-print bra was completely exposed, and I would wear black sheer tights with my restaurant shoes and an apron. It's such a crazy thing for me to look back on and realize that's what I wore every day to work.
I'm one of those people who has to shake a smile off her face when I get a compliment or a cat call. I have to shake away the confidence boost. At the bar, it's no different, but I have been struggling with the fact that my ideas on feminism and what it is to be a woman are changing, and the way I see sexual harassment is changing.
The difference between the sexual harassment I experience in the bar and in the world is that I feel more empowered at the bar to do what I need to do to stop the interaction. If someone gets handsy with me at work, I know I have the backup and the wherewithal to react. If someone was getting really inappropriate with me in the real world like they do at the bar—like touching me after I asked them to stop—I think I would be scared to death. I can't imagine how terrifying it would be to have the things that happen to me as a waitress happen to me on the street.
It's about having power. I have more power as a waitress to tell you that what you're doing is inappropriate because I have the upper hand. It's very helpful to just be able to say, "You're drunk," and push them off me. In the real world, you don't have the luxury of knowing that for sure.
Sexual harassment has a big spectrum at the bar. It can range from older men who have kids my age and will say something like, "You look so beautiful, you look so radiant," which is sweet. And then there are the regulars, who are younger and take me aside and tell me how beautiful I am and stuff. If I see one of those people, it's like, Great, now I have to be uncomfortable for ten-plus minutes.
I'm petrified that I would ruin someone's life for something I saw differently than they did. And I think that they know that, and they're thriving off that knowledge and power.
The things that make me the most uncomfortable are the people who whisper in my ear or take me aside, or tell me to come to talk to them privately. It's not the people who will try and touch my butt as I'm walking by, which is so rare. That's so much less offensive to me than someone coming over to me and whispering in my ear that they're in love with me. I'm not a flirty person. I'm a very nice person; I love to make friendships with the men and women that are there, and I think I'm well-respected at my bar, but I don't have the gene of being able to flirt at the bar. So I can't say that I'm provoking these people.
There's one regular at my bar who's there all the time, day and night—everybody knows him. The second I started working there, he was very vocal about the way I looked. He has this way of deeply sexualizing both women and men—I was not the first person to have this happen to them. Every time I walked by him he would be like, "Oh. My. God. Everybody look at that girl." And he'd pull me into him and grab me and touch my butt.
It's like they're nostalgic for a time when they could harass women freely.
I'm still trying to figure out if I'm able to be something other than flattered by this kind of thing. I don't know how to handle these situations. Part of me wanted to grab his hand and throw it off, and I don't know what the other half of me wanted to do. After a few weeks of it, and talking to my bosses about it, they were like, "Just tell him it makes you feel weird, he'll be fine." So I said to him, "I don't want you to do that, because if you do it other people will think that they can do it, too." I couldn't embarrass him by telling him, "Hey, you're sexually harassing me and making me feel uncomfortable." My whole job is about how not to embarrass the regulars. He didn't do it again until recently, when he started coming in during my shift again. He probably thought he'd reached a certain level with me that he could start doing it again.
I've worked in restaurants since I was 12—and even then the cooks would hit on me. It doesn't matter what you look like; someone is going to look at you sexually if you work at a bar or restaurant. I wonder if I even really know the extent of it, from what I've experienced. I've had a lot of sexual harassment in my life, in and out of the bar, but I so rarely do anything about it. I think women are scared to embarrass themselves or make a big deal out of something, because you could be called a liar. Every time this happens, I'm petrified that I would ruin someone's life for something I saw differently than they did, that I would ruin a reputation or do something to hurt these men because of my own opinion of what they were doing. And I think that they know that, and they're thriving off that knowledge and power.
One night, this very drunk guy looked me up and down and said, "WOW," and went to touch my hips. And I just said, "Look, this isn't that kind of bar." And he immediately said he was sorry. But he'd thought it was "that kind of bar" because places like that exist. I just don't work at one, which is great.
The thing that makes me feel the most powerless is when I react to a compliment by saying "thank you" and walking away because I'm uncomfortable, and someone will say, "Man, women just don't know how to take a compliment anymore." It happens all the time. It's like they're nostalgic for a time when they could harass women freely. The number of times I've spoken up about how I feel are minute compared to the times I've walked away feeling harassed, But when I do talk about how I feel, I feel amazing and empowered and like myself. I feel like a real person and not like a sexual object.
As told to Talia Ralph.