This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
“No… more like this.”
Carla* sashays down the alley, turns around at the dumpster, and sashays back.
“Like that.” She bucks out her hips from one side to the other like a showgirl, sucks the smoke from the last of cigarette, and tosses the butt into the plastic bucket—it once contained sliced pickles—which serves as an ashtray for the cooks and floor staff. “It’s got to come, like, from the hips.”
I try a series of uncertain steps down this impromptu catwalk. I’m wearing a pair of Payless flats. There’s a hole in the toe where I’ve worn through it, running back and forth from the kitchen to the patio a thousand times a day.
It’s the end of my shift, nearly midnight. It's mid-July in Ottawa, and one of those city nights that’s like living inside an asshole— impossibly hot and sticky and close with fumes. I work on Sparks Street at a greasy dump I wouldn’t let my worst enemy eat at. A tourist once left a TripAdvisor review for our restaurant that (accurately) claimed our burgers “slid through him like a rat through a drain pipe.”
“Fuck girl—kick out those hips… you’re not going to the fuckin’ barn. Tits up, ass out!”
On the street beyond us a stream of Friday-night taxis come to barely-legal rolling stops. What Carla and I are doing out in the steamy evening—her dictating, smoking, and correcting me trotting back and forth on command like a show dog—is trying to teach me “how to walk like a girl.”
A few hours ago while I was still on the floor, Carla, the front of house manager, approached me as I was bringing a chin-high stack of dirty dishes down to the pit. She told me the restaurant’s owner—a portly elderly man—had asked her to speak to me. He had been in for dinner, had seen me serving tables and had not been impressed with what he saw, she said—specifically, with my “unfeminine” way of walking and standing.
“Like, I know you’re gay,” Carla had said, shifting back and forth on the heels she routinely wore to work. “But you clomp girl. You walk like a dude.”
In order to “correct” this flaw in my service style, Carla—our only female manager—had been asked to “show” me how I was “supposed” to walk.
I turn on my heel and come back; I stand before Carla. She’s is in her late 30’s. She's tall with black hair, bleached highlights, short skirt, low-cut top. I am 23, short, with a rough pixie-cut that grew out from an unspeakably bad haircut I got from a student barber. My pants are too large and too long for my frame and my shirt—an ugly orange thing with the name of the restaurant emblazoned like a brand someone would actually recognize across the back—is also too large. I feel like a child wearing my parents clothes, awkward and ugly and small standing in front of Carla’s appraising, mascaraed eyes.
“We’ll keep working on it.” She fishes a lighter from her pocket, starts another cigarette. She blows smoke and crosses her arms. “You’ve got nice curves, you know? You’d be so pretty if you just did a little more with your hair, or wore a little make up.”
With that, I’m dismissed. I unlock my bike from the grate outside the restaurant and go home.
Sweeping down Rideau Street, I dive past the Parliament buildings, the National War Memorial where the lights from the base of the statue shine up into the face of a motherly angel holding a fallen soldier. I weave and dodge between cars, watch people and lights flicker by. I feel curiously distant from everything as if I am watching a movie about myself and the person playing me is a stranger.
At home, I turn on the television, get a beer from the fridge, roll a joint, and sit down on the couch. I crack the beer, and light the smoke. I wiggle my toes and look at them. You clomp, girl. You’d be so pretty if you just wore a little makeup.
And I’m suddenly just so mad, my face hot and flushed, sucking on the joint like it’s going to make me feel better even though I know it’s not. I’m embarrassed, furious with the attempt to retrain me into something I am so obviously not, some outdated, heteronormative version of what being ‘feminine’ and ‘female’ means. Moreover, I’m angry with myself because I let them humiliate me, because I was too young to know what to say in the face of such sexism and homophobia, and because even if I had known how to respond, I wouldn’t have. I needed that job. I couldn’t afford to lose it, and they knew it.
I fall asleep with the television on and my bare, traitorous feet still propped up on the coffee table.
That was all in 2010, back when I was still waiting tables to put myself through school. While tinted with homophobia, what this story is really about is what our culture views as feminine. If I were male, the way I walked, even if I were a gay male, it would never have come into question, at least not in the service industry. The fact that I am queer was not really the problem; the problem was that I am queer and refused to adhere to a heteronormative standard of attractiveness in a position in which I was expected to serve the public.
You would hope that, now, eight years later, things would be better; it would be easy to dismiss this anecdote as the kind of backward thinking we are in the process of outgrowing as a culture, but I can tell you first-hand that the service industry is still a stagnant, writhing shit hole of sexist, discriminatory behavior.
Recently, while living in Montreal, I asked a friend to hook me up with a job at a bar where she was managing. I was writing a book and wanted a part-time gig. My friend, who had worked with me when I was still serving full-time, readily agreed; she had a stable of younger servers, she said, and would love to have someone older and more experienced around. She told me to come to meet the bar owner and to dress for a training shift, which I did; a crisply pressed black dress shirt and a pair of slacks.
After three hours of sitting at the bar waiting, it became apparent that not only was the owner not coming out to meet me, but no work was forthcoming. My friend, in the throws of a Thursday night cinq-a-sept bar rush, looked embarrassed but was too busy to talk to me. I went home.
A few days later, we met for drinks and she admitted to me that I hadn’t got the job. When she told her boss she wanted to hire me, he told her no. In his words, I “did not fit the aesthetic of the bar” and since he had “just hired a male bartender” he didn’t need me as well.
Allow me to translate: My short-cut hair and tiny titties do not sell drinks, so no job for me.
This sexist horseshit is endemic in the industry. I worked in it for over ten years, right up until 2015. I put up with a lot of harassment from both management and male customers, the latter of which still feel surprisingly entitled to flirt, taunt, and even touch female servers. During my time in Montreal, I belonged to a Facebook group for servers and cooks in the city which acted as a kind of job board. Often, young female servers would simply post an attractive photo of themselves—with a low-cut top, nails, and hair done, makeup judiciously applied—with the tagline ‘looking for work.’ No resume, no credentials. Like they were making a Tinder profile and not seeking serious employment.
That these young women would look for work this way—and that there were usually responses to these posts from employers—reveals what female servers and managers all know but would never publicly say that female servers are hired as much, if not more, for their bodies than their skills.
You could pin this nasty fancy on restaurant owners, but the problem is actually much deeper than that. What the hungry and thirsty public—which is to say, largely men, who still have more earning and therefore more spending power than women—want is a pretty young thing to bring them their order. That’s part of what they’re paying for. And businesses know that for a cultural fact, one they can exploit and boil down to dollars. Hooters has 430 locations worldwide, a success which is based on a standardized, heteronormative, and obviously extremely marketable version of what “feminine” and “attractive” traits are.
In the era of #MeToo, if we are truly serious, as a culture, about changing the way women’s bodies—and male entitlement to those bodies—is perceived, then perhaps we need to start thinking about how and why we spend our dollars.
As for 2010 me—the one whose walk did not meet the standards of my employer—I quit that job a few months later. Shortly thereafter, I would fall in love for the first time. My partner would later reveal that what first drew her to me was not my hair or my clothes, not my smile or the way I did my (non-existent) make up, but the way I had walked across the bar to meet her.
*name has been changed to protect identities.
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