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Researchers Studied The Minds Of ‘Breastaurant’ Employees And Here’s What They Found

The psychological well-being of a Hooters server can be worrisome.

Image via Getty Images.

“Breastaurants” — restaurants that feature scantily clad waitresses — have appeared in the news from time to time. There was the biker gang fight at the Twin Peaks in Waco, Texas, and in April 2015, a former Hooters employee won a racial discrimination suit.

Yet, despite negative media attention, breastaurants like Twin Peaks, Spice Rack, Hooters, and Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery seem to be thriving, with industry firm Technomic reporting 30% or more growth for the sector in 2012. Meanwhile, casual dining chains like Applebee’s and Olive Garden are struggling.

But for all the tongue-in-cheek restaurant names, salacious headlines, and financial reports, it’s worth asking: How would working in one of these breastaurants affect your emotional and psychological well-being? As part of the University of Tennessee research team, we took on a series of studies in an attempt to answer this question, and several others, about the working environment at organizations like Hooters. Here’s what we found.

A Hooters girl in Singapore. Image by Premnath Kudva/Wikimedia Commons.

Legally, it’s OK for these places to put women on display.

Before we could find out what it’s like to work in these environments, we wanted to understand what we were dealing with. The majority (about 75%) of breastaurant customers are men, many of whom are middle-aged. The waitstaff, on the other hand, is almost exclusively female. (Nationwide, 72% of servers at any restaurant are women.)

Hooters legally gained the right to this skewed gender ratio (men who’ve tried to apply for jobs there have been denied) in a 1997 class action settlement, in which they used the Title VII Civil Rights Act’s “bona-fide occupational qualification” as their defense. In essence, Hooters argued that being female was essential to the performance of a Hooters Girl’s responsibilities (and yes, that’s the official job title): Because women’s bodies are core to its business model, the chain would be exempt from the federal discrimination policy. As described in the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Hooters “eventually entered into a 3.75 million dollar settlement that permitted the company to continue excluding men from its server positions, but mandated the creation of gender neutral positions for bartenders and hosts.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Because women’s bodies are core to its business model, the chain would be exempt from the federal discrimination policy.[/quote]

Despite this seeming legal endorsement, breastauraunts remain prime examples of what academics term sexually objectifying environments — settings, subcultures, or situations that promote, intensify, and sanction the treatment of women as sexual objects. These could include beauty pageants, cheerleading squads, and the like.

Places like breastaurants emphasize women’s bodies while suppressing their humanity and individuality, encouraging the “male gaze” by putting women’s bodies and sexuality on display. 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, legs, and breasts.

In addition, some of these restaurants will force waitresses to maintain the weight at which they were hired. These restaurants will also promote sexually objectifying 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 visually inspect waitresses' bodies — and to even appraise female servers' sexual desirability and appearance.

Breastaurants offer waitresses money and flexibility — and unwanted harassment.

Given the unique characteristics of Hooters-style restaurants, we wondered about the impact — emotionally and psychologically — on the women who worked in these sexually objectifying environments. So our research team conducted two studies to shed light on this topic.

Even the ketchup bottles at the Twin Peaks restaurant chain promote a sexually objectifying environment. Image by Ricky Brigante/Flickr.

The first was a small qualitative study in which we interviewed waitresses who worked at breastaurants. Participants reported that the main reasons they chose to work and remain employed at the breastaurant were, first, to make more money than they could have otherwise, and second, to have a higher degree of flexibility in creating their work schedule.

But participants 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 their consent, being propositioned for sexual favors, and in some cases, being stalked.

All the waitresses in our study 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 and were frustrated by demeaning and challenging interactions with customers, as well as poor relationships with unsupportive and competitive colleagues.

Many workers reported finding themselves in double-binds: situations in which they received contradictory messages that created dilemmas they could neither resolve nor opt out of. This could mean, for example, receiving an unwanted sexual advance from a frequent customer who’s a hefty tipper. If one asserts oneself, she might elicit an angry reaction, miss out on a tip, or sour that customer’s opinion forever — losing the company business.

Photo by Markburger83/Wikimedia Commons.

Sexual objectification isn’t healthy for any server — at Hooters or otherwise.

Although this study provided an in-depth and rich descriptive understanding of these waitresses’ lived experiences, it didn’t tell us whether their experiences were any different from women working at more traditional restaurants. So we conducted a second quantitative study, surveying a national sample of 253 waitresses who worked in settings ranging from breastaurants to family-oriented, casual restaurants.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]As body shame rises, so do depression levels.[/quote]

Consistent with the results of our first study, we found that waitresses who reported experiencing sexual objectification 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 jobs.

That’s unfortunate, as a study released in 2014 by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United revealed a high percentage of sexual harassment across the industry. As reported by Mic:

“Workers reported a high level of sexual harassment from coworkers (80 percent), customers (78 percent) and even management (66 percent). Cisgender men and women were roughly split, 50 percent and 47 percent respectively, in reporting ‘scary’ or ‘unwanted’ sexual behavior. Alarmingly, 60 percent of transgender workers felt the same way.”

Our findings also support classic objectification theory. That is, our data was 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 can depression levels — and dissatisfaction with their jobs.

We found a clear inverse relationship: The more workers’ bodies and sexuality were put on display, the less happy they were with their jobs. Taken together, our two studies suggest 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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