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A sign advertises a Hooters restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Joshua Lott/Reuters

What’s the psychological toll of being a Hooters waitress?

“Breastaurants” – restaurants that feature scantily clad waitresses – will occasionally appear in the news, whether it’s the biker gang fight at the Twin Peaks in Waco, Texas earlier this summer, or the racial discrimination suit won by a former Hooters employee back in April.

Yet despite negative media attention, breastaurants like Twin Peaks, Spice Rack, Hooters and Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery seem to be thriving. While casual dining chains like Applebee’s and Olive Garden are struggling mightily, many breastaurant chains reported 30% or more growth in the last few years.

But for all the tongue-in-cheek restaurant names and salacious headlines, it’s worth asking: how would working in one of these breastaurants affect your emotional and psychological well-being? What’s it like to actually be in the shoes of a waitress at one of these restaurants?

In a series of studies, our research team sought to help answer these questions.

Put on display

The majority (about 75%) of breastaurant customers are men, many of whom are middle-aged. And these restaurants uphold traditional gender roles by employing an exclusively female waitstaff. (Nationwide, 72% of servers are female.)

In fact, Hooters legally gained this right in a 1997 class action settlement, in which they used the Title VII Civil Rights Act’s “bona-fide occupational qualification” as its defense.

In essence, they argued that being female was essential to the performance of the Hooters Girl’s job responsibilities: because women’s bodies are tools of the trade, they should be exempt from the federal discrimination policy.

“Breastraunts” are examples of what academics term sexually objectifying environments, which are settings, subcultures or situations that promote, intensify and sanction the treatment of women as sexual objects. These could include beauty pageants, cheerleading squads, modeling and the little sister organizations of fraternities.

Places like breastaurants emphasize women’s bodies while suppressing their humanity and individuality, and two distinct ways restaurants promote sexually objectifying environments are by putting women’s bodies and sexuality on display and by encouraging the “male gaze.”

Restaurants that promote the former regulate female workers’ appearance and wardrobe in ways that draw attention to their physical and sexual attributes. For example, they often require their waitresses to wear uniforms or clothing that accentuate their buttocks, upper legs and breasts.

In addition, some will force waitresses to maintain the weight at which they were hired. These restaurants will also promote events (like wet t-shirt competitions among waitresses) and products (such as swimsuit calendars) that market the sex appeal of their waitresses.

Meanwhile, restaurants that elicit the “male gaze” implicitly acknowledge and sanction the “right” of male customers to watch, stare at and visually inspect waitresses’ bodies – and to even appraise female servers’ sexual desirability and appearance.

More money and flexibility come at a cost

Given the growth and unique characteristics of Hooters-style restaurants, we wondered about the impact – emotionally and psychologically – on the women who worked in these sexually objectifying environments. After all, no one had ever investigated this before.

So our research team conducted two studies to shed light on this topic. The first was a qualitative study where we interviewed waitresses who worked at a so-called breastaurant.

Participants reported that the main reasons they chose to work and remain employed at the breastaurant were (1) to make more money than they could have otherwise, and (2) to have a high degree of flexibility in creating their work schedule.

But they also described receiving unwanted lewd comments, sexual advances and other forms of sexual harassment from customers, which included being grabbed, having pictures taken of their body parts without consent, being propositioned for sexual favors – and, in some cases, being stalked.

All the waitresses reported feeling a host of negative emotions tied to these experiences: anxiety, anger, sadness, depressed mood, confusion and degradation.

Furthermore, participants relayed other negative aspects of their jobs. They felt a general ambivalence toward the work, demeaning and challenging interactions with customers, and poor relationships with unsupportive and competitive colleagues.

Many reported finding themselves in double-binds: situations where they received contradictory messages that created dilemmas that they couldn’t resolve or opt out of. This could mean, for example, receiving an unwanted sexual advance from a frequent customer who’s a hefty tipper, which creates the dilemma of asserting oneself and eliciting an angry reaction.

Shame and depression acutely felt

Although this study provided an in-depth and rich descriptive understanding of these waitresses’ lived experience, it didn’t tell us if their experiences were any different from women working at restaurants that didn’t create a sexually objectifying environment.

The ketchup bottles at the Twin Peaks restaurant chain promote a sexually objectifying environment. Ricky Brigante/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

So we conducted a second quantitative study, where we surveyed a national sample of 253 waitresses who worked in settings ranging from breastaurants to family-oriented, casual restaurants.

Consistent with the results of our first study, we found that waitresses working in restaurants that sexually objectified their employees were more likely to experience a host of negative interactions with customers, ranging from unwanted advances to lewd comments. They were also far more likely to internalize cultural standards of beauty, experience symptoms of depression and were more likely to be dissatisfied with their job.

Our findings also support classic objectification theory. That is, our data were consistent with the notion that women who waitress in these types of sexually objectifying environments will soon amplify their habitual appearance and body monitoring. This, in turn, increases their body shame. And as body shame rises, so do their levels of depression.

The end result? Many end up dissatisfied with their jobs. Furthermore, we found a clear inverse relationship: the more their bodies and sexuality were put on display, the less happy they were with their jobs.

Taken together, our research suggests that although “breastaurants” may be good for waitresses’ pocketbooks, they don’t appear to be good for their psychological and work-related health.

Unfortunately, sexual objectification of women occurs in a number of different contexts and settings, from the cultural to the interpersonal.

Our findings are simply consistent with a fairly large research base that shows how harmful sexual objectification of women can be.

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