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How do women deal with sexualized work environments?

By Christin Bowman

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Women get sexually objectified all over the place. As recent installments of this blog have made clear, music videos and advertisements are prime examples of the sexualization of women in the media. This constant sexualization of girls and women makes me super-skeptical when I hear people arguing that women and girls have achieved equality – as if! And the media isn’t the only place women are sexually objectified. As girls and women living in this male-dominated world, we experience sexual objectification first-hand on a regular basis. Why, just this morning I was forced to look straight ahead and ignore the “hey baby” coming from an unknown man as I quickened my step and made my way to the subway.

As treacherous as the streets of New York may be, however, I am aware that even these sidewalks offer me some protection – at least when I walk past a creepy guy on my way to the subway I have the luxury of pretending he doesn’t exist. But for women who spend their time in beauty pageants, for example, or as cheerleaders, cocktail waitresses or “Miller Lite Girls,” being sexually objectified simply comes with the territory. Let’s face it: as far as sexual objectification goes, there are some environments that are just plain worse than others.

Researchers Lauren Moffitt and Dawn Szymanski[1] have a special term for these kinds of places – they call them sexually objectifying environments, or SOEs for short. SOEs typically expect men and women to behave in traditional male and female roles, give women very little power, and encourage the men to stare at the women. One such SOE that fits these criteria to a T is that notorious, all-American “neighborhood” restaurant, Hooters.

Hooters’ website is splashed with images of half-naked women and hamburgers. Tongue-in-cheek phrases like “Making buns look good for years” welcome visitors to an environment in which objectifying women is not just tolerated, it’s expected and encouraged. Researchers Moffitt and Szymanski were curious about what it must be like to be a “Hooters Girl.” What makes women choose to work in such an environment? What are these women’s experiences of sexual objectification, and how do they manage it day after day? To find out, the researchers decided to interview eleven women who worked at Hooters. Most of the women were White, in their early twenties. All had completed high school, and seven were working on college degrees, and one of the women already had her bachelor’s. The researchers asked the women basic questions about why they chose to work at Hooters and what the experience has been like for them.

Their findings, though not totally surprising, are still a little disturbing. First of all, the number one reason women chose to work at Hooters was to earn more money. Since many women were either in college or raising children (or both), working at Hooters also allowed the women more schedule flexibility. Once employed, the women had to immediately adopt the Hooters look (based on a very narrow, White, heterosexual standard of beauty), which included endless physical requirements regarding hair, nails, makeup, teeth-brushing, deodorant, tattoos, jewelry and of course the requirement that the women maintain the weight at which they were hired. “Basically, you’re not allowed to get fat,” one woman recalled.

While on the job, the women reported feeling endlessly sexually objectified by male customers. “The guys are constantly watching you, no matter where you go,” one woman said, “If you’re doing nothing and just standing there, because that’s what you’re literally there for, they’re always watching you.” As if being “on display” when not carrying a tray wasn’t bad enough, many women reported more serious forms of sexualization that should probably be called sexual harassment or sexual violence. The women reported being grabbed, having unwanted pictures taken of their sexual body parts, being propositioned for sex, and even being followed or stalked outside of the restaurant.

As we might expect, a women who must put up with this repulsive behavior as a part of her job tends to feel less-than-stellar as a result. Several of the women interviewed talked about feeling depressed or sad, and it was not uncommon for the women to cry at work. “Sometimes I want to go to the bathroom and cry, because it makes you feel so disrespected,” said one woman, “like you’re absolutely nothing, and I don’t really think that’s fair.”

Far from being passive victims of a toxic SOE, however, the women described several strategies they used to resist the harmful effects of being constantly sexually objectified. For example, several of the women mentioned using humor to downplay the situation. “We just have to kind of joke around, laugh it off and, you know, just kind of put up with it actually,” explains one woman. Furthermore, the women talked about the importance of setting boundaries with customers by, for example, talking about boyfriends, husbands, or children. Finally, the women dealt with the SOE by psychologically separating their Hooters Girl persona from their “true” selves. As one woman bluntly put it, “I’m a really good bullshitter to be honest.”

As I read this study, I couldn’t help but relate to these women. I may never have worked at Hooters, but I’m no stranger to sexual objectification. Any woman who dares to pound the New York City pavement, for example, knows what it feels like to be ogled by men on the street. So what broke my heart about this study was the final section, entitled “Judgment.” Over and over again the women described being judged by others to be sexually loose and immoral – and not just by their customers. The women described negative judgments from close friends, family members, potential romantic partners, and the general public. In short, the women were judged not just by men, but also by other women.

So what’s the bottom line? Is working at Hooters “good” for women? Is it “bad” for women? Neither of these questions has a clear answer. After all, it may be “bad” for a woman to have to put up with sexual objectification as a part of her job, but at the same time it is certainly “good” for her to have enough time to take care of her disabled child and still pay the rent.

But what seemed to be missing from the women’s stories was the element of support for one another. Instead of banding together to take on a difficult environment together, the women told stories of competition, cattiness, distancing, and gossip. As one woman stated, “Girls are brutal there.”

Working in a sexually objectifying environment is hard enough. Now is the time for women to look at one another with respect and compassion, instead of jealousy, fear, and judgment. We all live in this male-dominated world together – one big SOE. And if you ask me, it is unthinkable to face it alone.

[1] Moffitt, L.B., Szymanski, D.M. (2011). Experiencing sexually objectifying environments: A qualitative study. The Counseling Psychologist, 39(1), 67-106.

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