My first encounter with inappropriate workplace banter was when I was 16 years old. A line cook I worked with told me if he had a girlfriend, he’d want her to be exactly like me. He was 22 years old.
Eventually, it progressed to married men old enough to be my father touching the small of my back and telling me they just couldn’t stop looking at me. My skin would crawl, but their grins wouldn’t leave their faces.
I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15 years old. I started out as a dishwasher and worked my way up to serving by the time I was 18. At every restaurant I’ve ever worked, I’d feel like I was a part of a family.
But, for every great relationship I’ve made and every new person I’ve met through my job, there is one stark and sadly prevalent consequence: sexual harassment.
At all of the restaurants I’ve worked at, I’ve encountered co-workers and customers who’ve completely overstepped their boundaries. Men have hollered at me from their cars as I’ve set up patio furniture. I’ve been called sweetheart after establishing my name to a table multiple times. I’ve been asked if I’m single while rattling off happy hour specials.
And all I ever did was grimace and walk away.
I’d laugh it off, tell myself I was being conceited and move on with my night. Or, even worse, I’d blame myself. I’d tell myself I shouldn’t have worn lipstick or that I was asking for it with how revealing my shirt was — even though in this industry, you’re encouraged to flaunt what you have to make men ogle and give you their money.
As a woman, I love my body, and I’m comfortable with my sexuality. But, when people take it as an invitation to treat me however they please, that is when shame and doubt can begin to cloud my mind.
After face-reddening and stomach-churning encounters, I’d carry on taking drink orders and sweet-talking tables so that they’d order dessert. I would act like it just never occurred. I started to desensitize the disrespect I received, and that is what truly scared me the most.
I knew I needed to make a change when there came a time I absolutely dreaded going to work. I could handle guys leaving their phone numbers on their receipts, but I couldn’t handle feeling obligated to be nice to someone who made me genuinely uncomfortable.
I toggled back and forth with this sense of guilt. If I said something, would I be responsible for someone losing their job? What if this is just how he is? What if I’m in the wrong?
But what if the comments and the unwarranted touching continued? What if I never felt comfortable at my job again?
Finally, I got over my fears and realized that it isn’t normal to feel this way in the workplace. I told myself that the longer I put up with it, the more complacent I’d become.
So, I stood up for myself and did what I felt was right. One night, I went to the head chef and told him I didn’t feel comfortable working with an employee.
He simply nodded, asked when the harassment started and assured me things would change. He didn’t make me feel like I was crazy, like I convinced myself I was for so long.
In the weeks following, there were some cold shoulders and awkward silences in the kitchen. Kitchen crews are tight-knit, and I was a narc. He didn’t lose his job — I didn’t want him to — but he did leave me alone.
I stopped receiving unwanted hugs and comments about my looks, and it’s all because I spoke up.
Finding my voice gave me the confidence to stand up for myself. Being in the service industry means being a people pleaser, but a 20 percent tip isn’t worth my dignity. I’m no longer afraid to remind people what my name is when they call me sweetheart, and I won’t put up with people asking me about my love life when I’m just trying to do my job.
I’m not afraid to make people hear me anymore.