Kiss My Gl(Ass) Ceiling: Sexual Harrassment On the Job

Once again you guys are spared an Outlaw Mama story about the time she was standing next to a live microphone at a reception at her law firm, when she decided to talk some smack about her supervisor.  (Outlaw Mama: 0, Universe: 1)

My guest poster today is one Dana Staves who cooks up a storm, writes like a life-long novelist (just don’t ask her if she’s read The Secret Garden), and has some fascinating things to say about sexual harassment on the job.  Give up for my blogging buddy, Dana.  She’s brought the bravery today.

* * * *

In college, I worked two seasons at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. I was a waitress at the Peacock Tea Room, a garden oasis up the hill from the jousting field.

When you come to a Renaissance Festival, you expect to see costumes, turkey legs, and breasts. The Renaissance bodice is a trademark of any festival, and when I went to buy my first bodice, a friend from the Tea Room went with me. Once we found one in a color I liked, she laced me up, pulled the laces taut, and instructed me to fluff my breasts “like pillows.”

After a time, we become desensitized to breasts at the Renaissance Festival. They are, essentially, props, part of a costume, the same way that hats and tights are often part of men’s costumes. Because breasts are props, they become about as sexy as a shoe or an apron.

Once, a man at the Tea Room asked me if I could change a twenty for him. I instinctively reached for my bust line, where I kept all my tips tucked into my cleavage. I stopped. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’ll have to give you change out of my cleavage. Is that weird?” He and his wife laughed. “Honey,” he said. “I grew up around Renaissance Festivals. I wouldn’t have even noticed.”

In fact, in the two seasons I worked for the festival, I only had one man make a comment about my cleavage. He was someone I knew, an actor who played one of the musketeers, Porthos, who was supposed to be a bit of a womanizer anyway.

I’ve told you this story about the Renaissance Festival because I think a discussion of women in the workplace is incomplete without talking about sexual harassment.

I’ll say this now: I was never harassed at the Renaissance Festival. That came later.

It was after my first year of graduate school. I was living in Virginia, and I needed a job for the summer. I got hired at a local bakery/café. I was told to come in on my first day wearing black pants and proper restaurant shoes, that a shirt and an apron would be issued to me when I got there. I showed up wearing the pants, the shoes, and a pink v-neck t-shirt. It wasn’t low-cut. It was the kind of thing I would wear to lunch with my mother. Appropriate.

After a brief tour of the restaurant, the assistant manager pulled me away from my trainer and escorted me to the office in the back of the kitchen so he could set me up in the computer. He fired off questions at me: name, address, phone number, birthday. I followed along on the screen, answering as he asked the questions. The next question box asked him to select either male or female. I said nothing, assuming he would fill in the box and move on.

He didn’t. Instead, he turned, looked me in the eye, and then slowly and pointedly looked at my breasts. “Female,” he said. He smiled in that lecherous, leering way that, unfortunately, is too familiar.

I didn’t smile. I didn’t laugh. I knew better than to make the moment easy on him. But I didn’t call him on it either. I wasn’t sure what to say to my new boss, on the first day of a job I really needed, when he crossed the line.

I finished my shift, met up with friends, and told them the story. I confessed I felt cheap, silly, foolish, weak. I also felt guilty. I thought of all my time at the Renaissance Festival, of fluffing my breasts like pillows and stuffing money in my cleavage. I had taken enough feminist theory and women’s literature classes to know it wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t been “asking for it.” And relatively speaking, this particular brand of harassment was minor.

But I was ashamed and confused – how could I reconcile my carefully cultivated Renaissance cleavage with the gross feeling of violation I had after my shift at the café? Honestly, I still have no conclusions.

I have a theory that it all comes down to context. It comes down to the difference between an open-air garden tea room, and a dingy back office of a restaurant kitchen. It comes down to the difference between a cast of actors and workers who felt like family, and a lecherous new manager I had just met. It comes down to the culture, the difference between a matriarchal festival culture and a hierarchical, shady boss-employee dichotomy.

And it comes down to power. Because at the festival, I was playing a part, performing, using my body as a prop. I was safe, among friends. And cleavage was a joke we were all in on. While at the café, I was just a girl in a back office being ogled, something she didn’t sign on for. At the café, the joke was on me.

* * *

Dana Staves is the voice behind Whisks & Words, a blog about a writer who cooks, where she discusses food, books, and the writing life. She is also a contributor on Food Riot, an online magazine dedicated to food and eating. Dana loves to bake, believes she can never own too many scarves or aprons, and prefers for her coffee, tea, and cocktails to taste like dessert. She is currently working on her first novel, and when she’s not writing, she can usually be found experimenting in her kitchen, which she generally thinks of as her happy place. She lives in southern California with her wife and their cat, Otis.
Twitter:  @DanaStaves

12 thoughts on “Kiss My Gl(Ass) Ceiling: Sexual Harrassment On the Job

  1. I just don’t understand how this sort of thing still happens. I don’t know why people (and in particular men) don’t know this is not acceptable behavior. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Nothing surprises me about sexual harassment anymore. Nothing. And I agree power has a lot to do with it. Oh, to have been able to stand up and walk out, refusing to accept or tolerate the boss’ behavior. And yet. How many of us are unable to do that? Too many. And too many of us are put in the position too often anyway.

    Also, I wish I had cleavage.

  3. I don’t have any easy answers for the questions such as “why does this still happen?” I mean honestly, I think it has something to do with the fact that we are all human beings, with a sexual nature integrated into our personhood.

    Don’t hear what I’m not saying; I’d never excuse real sexual harassment – it’s horrid whether men or women do it, but I certainly appreciate the author’s viewpoint on context and complexity. In my own workplace, I now protect myself constantly from even the most remote potential of getting accused. I don’t even get on an elevator with a woman alone. As a man in my workplace, I live with being a sexual suspect. Even the most friendly, winsome smile can be a trip-wire to a complaint. And make no mistake, the burden of proof for innocent behavior is all mine to carry. At the end of the day, I’m really tired of the brittle, distrustful nature that has grown up in the workplace between the sexes. I’m sure all of this legalistic oversight was supposed to protect women from lecherous creeps, and maybe it has for a lot of them. But at what cost? Does anyone even care to ask that question or is it easier just to blindly plod on telling ourselves that we’ve made “real progress” in the workplace?

    Oh, and as for personal experience, a female colleague put a major move on me a two years ago, which I cooly rejected and then a week later found myself looking down the barrel of a sexual harassment complaint. Thankfully, it died on the vine (no proof apparently) but the damage was done nevertheless. She, my would-be temptress got her revenge I suppose. Nice, eh?

  4. What is it about the restaurant business that is synonymous with sexual harassment? I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a food establishment where I wans’t put in the same position.

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