I had been working in hospitality for a few years when I began to notice a change in me. At the start of each shift, I felt like I was putting on an imaginary mask. Clearing my mind, I would drop my baggage at the entrance to the kitchen, take a deep breath, hunch my shoulders and let them fall down. I would then walk onto the restaurant floor, notepad in hand and a smile plastered on my face.
I think this change in me occurred around the time I started studying feminist theory at university. I began to notice the ways in which I was treated differently from the men in my workplace. While I had always been uncomfortable with people touching me while I was working, there was a point when I began to view it as demeaning and patronizing rather than just people being ignorant of the boundaries of my personal space. I found myself cringing every time someone called me ‘darling’ or ‘love’, so much so that my smile would begin to hurt my face. I didn’t see these words as out-of-place terms of endearment anymore – they were condescending.
‘I think he was just being friendly and wanted to make you feel important,’ a male friend said to me when I told him about an encounter I had with a customer. This customer had continually spoken over me while I was trying to take their order, and demanded to know my age and where I lived.
‘Mmmm, maybe,’ I replied to my friend, trying to block out the image of the customer opening their arms and asking me for a ‘cuddle’.
‘No, thank you,’ I had said through clenched teeth, unable to keep the disgust from my face. But the man insisted that I at least shake his hand because I had ‘been grumpy’ with him ‘all night’ and needed to ‘cheer up a bit’. That didn’t give him the right to demand physical contact from me.
I had walked away from this encounter fuming, partly at the nerve of the customer (who had been difficult from the beginning of the night), and partly at the fact that I just had to take it. That this was just part of being a waitress and was something that I needed to learn to deal with while keeping a smile on my face. I felt dirty and used.
At university I learned about the feminist movement, about patriarchal power and about female oppression. I learned about all the different ways that women before me fought for their (and my) rights. And here I was being made to smile and politely decline as this man insisted I give him a hug (because I must have been ‘grumpy’ rather than just busy and not in the mood to indulge his silly jokes and blatant attempts to waste my time).
This realisation constantly grated on me, but I didn’t want to become someone who was unpleasant to be around and I didn’t want to lose my job. So I acted as if I wasn’t angry. As Roxane Gay says in Bad Feminist, ‘when a girl is unlikeable, a girl is a problem’. We put up with the awful feeling that these looks, comments and actions cause us because we are afraid of losing our jobs or causing a fuss or making men angry enough to want to hurt us.
As a child, I grew up being told that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I never thought I was anything less than equal to the boys in my grade. But upon learning about feminism, I realized that this was far from the case. I read about girls being raped and their rapists spending only months in jail. I saw film after film depicting the female characters as prizes to be won, or as bimbos or as sex objects. I was groped and hit on at work, even once I had made it perfectly clear that I was not interested. It started to not be flattering anymore when a customer flirted with me or asked me to go out with him after work.
I am angry at being treated as less than human, at being seen as closer to object than person. I am tired of being called ‘love’ and ‘darling’ and being asked for a ‘cuddle’ by a customer. I’m tired of being forced to be polite and behave, even when a customer is rude or abusive or is harassing me. But most of all, I am tired of having to complain about it. I am tired of talking about it but seeing no real change. I am tired of feeling like this is just something I have to accept, just because of my gender.
I am so tired that one day soon they’ll look for me in that restaurant, for my white shirt with gravy stains and my ugly but sensible orthotic shoes, but they won’t find me. A customer will be turning in his seat, looking for someone to take his order. Another group will look at their empty entree plates wondering when their mains are going to be ready. There will be a group of six people waiting at the door, desperate for a table with a view even though they haven’t booked and it is a Saturday night. But I won’t be there. I will be carrying a customer’s entire cake with me to my car, where I will eat it with my bare hands, laughing.
Image: Annie Spratt
Sam Kiley is a University of Melbourne graduate with a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. She lives in Melbourne, loves Harry Potter, Gilmore Girls and chocolate. Sam has worked in hospitality for the past 4 years.