I worked as a server in three restaurants from my late teens into my mid-twenties. I was a different person back in the 2000s. I was still an outspoken, progressive artist, but I wasn’t as radical in my opinions, as knowledgeable about systemic sexism, or as ready to reprimand a misogynist who was attempting to claim ownership over my mind or body or gender. I was a younger, mellower, less awake version of myself. My theories about politics were still afloat here and there but I wasn’t viewing every interaction from my polished intersectional feminist lens.

I knew that assault was bad and equal pay was important and pro-choice was always the best stance to have. But I didn’t know about the seriousness of microaggressions, the conventions of power dynamics, or the subtle and not-so-subtle existence of sexual harassment in the workplace, particularly in my workplace. I also wasn’t aware that assault was something that could be committed against me specifically. I thought of it more as a distant crime that I read about in the news. Not something that my friends experienced on a regular basis. Not something that my coworkers were told to keep quiet about by their superiors. Not something that could casually happen in the afternoon on the very public patio of a corporate restaurant where I had only been employed for a month.

When an intoxicated male guest grabbed at my ass in order to feel the fabric of my slinky dress, my defensive instinct instantly reacted in anger. I quickly turned and whispered “No!” only loud enough that I could hear. I was furious. I was frightened. I was primed to call the police. But that outcry only lasted for a second. My deep-seated desire to be respected as a human being instead of treated like a cute animal at a petting zoo faded as I remembered that this was typical behaviour from the men who dined there.

I had witnessed my colleagues being touched inappropriately time and time again. I saw their frowns, frustrations, and fears beneath the large grin we were all instructed to wear as soon as we clocked in. I questioned my knee-jerk reaction to this alarming and disgusting and illegal situation because this treatment of the female staff had been so normalized by the higher ups. It was normal for us to be objectified, sexualized, belittled, harassed, and abused by the dudes we were paid to serve. I had become so accustomed to it that I stopped being the slightly disagreeable girl – the one who pushed back.

That push back got me in trouble. Any minor protest against the rules of the corporate establishment gets you in trouble. Arguing with your boss was a concrete no-no, no matter how frequently they called you “honey” or “stupid” or “slutty.” I would absorb these words said to me or about the women I worked alongside and immediately force myself to forget. I convinced my psyche that this managerial conduct was not something of note. I accepted my fate as a piece of meat who received the “good” tips when she offered her body to her tables without question, allowed her skirt to be hiked up as high as it could go, and kept her mouth shut whenever she saw something that she wasn’t okay with. I was a version of myself that I didn’t recognize or enjoy. A version I never want to return to. A version I had to be to survive in that industry. An industry that chews up smart, strong women and spits them out. An industry that crushed my self-worth and devalued my humanity and trivialized my need to feel safe at my job. An industry that I didn’t realize was tortuous, corrupt, and oppressive until years later when I was able to analyze it from far away.

The oppression of women was evident in our mandatory uniforms. We were given a dress named after a brand of alcohol and were told that the tighter it was, the more cash we’d get. The men could wear long shorts or pants with flat shoes. The women had to wear heels, hairspray and an outfit that routinely rose up the backside or dropped down the front while carrying trays of steaming food and pitchers of beer. What a funny coincidence that these articles of clothing were designed in a way that prevented the person wearing them from adjusting as she swiftly moved through a room. It almost seemed like it was done on purpose. Like it was all a circus show for the customers to gawk at. Like it was part of the brilliant plan to use the bones of women to sell cheap burgers and hot wings and rib-eye steaks.

During training, girls were informed that when we start a shift, we should look like we’re “arriving at the party” not “leaving it.” We were then patronizingly asked how we prepare for a party. “You put on makeup and do your hair and dress to impress, right?” my manager said with a big smile, as if to say, “This is fun, isn’t it?”

He also thought it would be fun for us to give a little to get a little with him. We should be “super nice” to him if we wanted to get the “best sections” and “make the most money” and “avoid his unreasonable wrath.” It was all about making money. That’s what they always brought it back to, just in case we were ever wondering what our breasts were designed to do.

I support every woman and the choices she makes with her body, but the only choice in this realm was, “Dress this way or you’ll be fired. Behave like this or you’ll get written up. Don’t speak a word of this to anyone or head office will get involved.” It was not a realm of empowerment and control. It was a realm of threats and scare tactics and abuse of power. When I found out that managers were engaging in sexual intercourse with some of the servers, bartenders and hostesses, I got sick thinking about these smug men misusing their executive positions. I would see them graze the lower backs of the sometimes eighteen-year-old hosts and watch as the girls uncomfortably giggled in response. Their sad eyes hoping that this nightmare would end soon.

Then there were the moments that slipped under the radar. I still wonder to this day if certain actions and words were wrongdoing, knowing inside that they definitely were. When a woman got sick, she was told to “suck it up and get back to work” even if her period cramps were paralyzing her. The female shift leaders were often scheduled to close the restaurant but any interest in getting a raise or taking a vacation or being promoted to manager was usually out of the question. I once requested New Year’s Eve off and my boss replied, “You’re being a bitch right now” in front of the entire staff. He then rolled his eyes and walked away, but only after he made me apologize for “stressing him out.”

If I initiated the slightest amount of conflict I was being “difficult,” but the cooks could tell each other (and me) to go fuck themselves, and that would be fine and dandy and acceptable. It was a world of double standards, constant silencing and aggressive sexualization. I was being paid to serve people food, but I was forced to do much more than that. The hospitality industry was the most oppressive environment I have ever worked in. The systemic sexism that I’m now aware of flowed through every transaction, and the scariest part about it is that I didn’t fully realize that until I left.