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A letter to beleaguered female waitstaff everywhere

October 31, 2008 |  6:20 pm

Beleaguredwaitresses A former bartender at West Hollywood's Foxtail nightclub is filing a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Foxtail parent company SBE for allegedly telling her she needed to lose weight if she wanted to keep working in the front of the house.

The story gained traction today as blogs like Eater L.A. reported that self-dubbed feminist lawyer Gloria Allred has signed on to represent the bartender, Virginia Tzortzos. Allred, whose clients have included Paula Jones and Nicole Brown Simpson's family, is known for catching the media's attention, and she did it again this morning with a feisty appearance on CBS' "The Early Show," where she chided SBE and asked, "How thin must a woman be to keep her job?"

SBE would not comment, saying, "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending or threatened litigation."

It will be interesting to follow this story, because although it's reprehensible to tell a woman she needs to stay skinny to keep her job, it's not remotely surprising to any woman who has spent time in the service industry.

Before becoming an employed writer, I spent seven years bartending and waitressing at a bar that was owned by a pair of elderly German men who hired only women, and those women were required to wear sexy-looking dirndls to work. I was 23 and broke when I took the job; the first day I had to put on the dirndl, I looked in the mirror and started to cry.

Make no mistake, men came to the bar to gawk at the "girls" who worked there. (We were always called girls, even the middle-aged among us.) We made great tips, though, and lots of regular non-gawkers came in to befriend us. Most important, we were a family — girls against the rude, unseemly, drunken masses. We were also up against our bosses and their often sexist assumptions about how we should look and behave.

When a thirtysomething coworker didn't wear makeup to work, she was told she looked like an "old lady"; if a girl gained weight, she was told she was fat; when I scarred my face in a car accident, my boss asked, "What happened to your face?" even though he knew perfectly well what had happened to it. We knew this treatment was inappropriate, but our bosses were old, from another time and in possession of what we liked to think of as a special type of German candidness. Over the years we learned to remain unfazed and to sneak shots behind their backs.

I've met many waitresses over the years who have run up against similar prejudice. It seems to come with the territory and is emblematic of a larger problem within the service industry as a whole — not just at a trendy nightclub like Foxtail, where as a commenter on Eater pointed out, "they're in the business of image."

After all, the image of a woman — what she is supposed to be and look like and how she is supposed to talk and think — becomes magnified when she is in the age-old role of server. When a woman dresses in a uniform to put food on the table or to take orders, she is assuming several roles at once, roles that have been hard-wired into most people's brains whether they realize it or not — those of mother, wife and servant. All three roles are sexualized in their own particular and sometimes bizarre ways. For example, the time a potbellied man lecherously patted my rear end after I brought him his steak tartare. Nothing is less sexy than steak tartare.

When that sexualization gets wrapped up in the form of a woman who gets paid to be nice to you, otherwise restrained and thoughtful people can become pillars of insensitivity.

— Jessica Gelt

Photo: A server has her hands full. Credit: Thomas Lohnes / AFP Getty Images

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