Being a feminist and Hooters Girl aren’t mutually exclusive. Even so, I’ve always been a bit of a case study in contradictions, which may explain how a lifelong feminist like me also spent three years waitressing at an establishment best known for wings and women.
After applying for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch, I left the mall and found myself staring straight into the owl-eyed O’s of a Hooters restaurant sign 200 yards away.
It was 2003, and at 19 years old, I was already fed up with sexism. Catcalls on the street were routine, as were suggestive comments from male college classmates. Hooters suddenly seemed like a subversive way of making money off of the sexism that made me sick. At least the men there would have to pay me to smile at their shit.
They hired me on the spot.
The first time I squeezed into my tank top, orange bloomers and tan pantyhose, I was uncomfortable — more of my body was exposed than I was used to. Despite being bold enough to apply for a job at Hooters, I wasn’t particularly confident in my looks. I felt awkward and nervous about having so much of me on display for public consumption.
I’d always hated pantyhose, but suddenly, they were a lifesaver. They gave me the illusory sense of coverage beneath my bloomers, making my legs feel less bare and the uniform more bearable. So I didn’t mind as much every time they snagged and my managers forced me to fork over hard-earned tip money to buy new ones.
“Is Ashley your real name?” customers asked. At Hooters, my name was the same, but I was anyone but myself. When I walked onto the restaurant floor, I transformed from a nerdy, introverted college student who was consumed with getting into law school into an outgoing, bouncy, smiley stranger whose sole focus was fun.
And sometimes, it was fun. I made friends with my co-workers. We were part of an exclusive club, and the back-breaking work we did brought us together. Serving wings and pouring beer wasn’t rocket science, but it was the most physical work I’ve ever done. On weekends and holidays, the restaurant was full. That meant waitresses were running for seven hours straight.
Working double shifts was rare for me, but my co-workers regularly worked 12-14 hours out of necessity. Many were single mothers for whom Hooters wasn’t a college side job the way it was for me. It was honest, hard work that paid their bills. While I was worried about getting good tips to spend with friends on a Friday night, others worried about survival — making rent and feeding their children.
I thought that if I was honest about where I worked, people would label me a slut, unintelligent, immoral, anti-feminist, the list goes on … Yet I wasn’t any of those things, and neither were my co-workers.
My co-workers and I also became comrades out of our collective frustration with “regulars.” We nicknamed one regular “Jesus” because he evangelized in between sips of Arnold Palmers. He thought that giving me a copy of “The Purpose Driven Life” one day and chocolate-covered strawberries the next canceled each other out.
Regulars appeared to choose their favorites based on which waitresses they found most attractive, and paid them the most attention (and tips). How much attention a waitress got typically coincided with who was willing to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy talking to the customers. Since small talk has never been my forte, I didn’t have many regulars. I was happy to be kind and courteous to my customers, but my relationship with them was strictly transactional. Anything beyond that felt fake and forced.
It was impossible to be friends with customers because a palpable power imbalance undercut our interactions. The mere fact that some were there seemed to make them feel superior, as if Hooters was a misogynistic safe haven where they no longer had to feign respect for women. The way they peered down at me from their stools, distilling me down to an object of their male gaze and sizing me up, made me feel like I was under near-constant physical scrutiny. Being in the restaurant empowered them to gawk at me, dole out unprovoked sexual advances with impunity, and weigh in with unsolicited assessments of my looks and intellect.
I once waited on a table of four men, all of whom looked like people you might see standing puffy-chested behind Donald Trump’s podium at a MAGA rally. As I cleared their table, one grabbed my arm and said with a smirk: “We have a question about our bill, but I doubt you can handle basic math.”
His words didn’t hit me as hard as his callous stare did. The way he looked through me as he delivered the verbal blow made it clear it wasn’t an ignorant joke or off-handed remark; he meant to hurt me, cut me down and demean me. But if he hoped to stir up sadness, he failed. All that sat beneath the surface of my stunned silence was rage.
Rage — with nowhere to go. I couldn’t talk about work because hardly anyone knew about it. It was my “dirty” secret, one that felt easier to hide than to reveal. I thought that if I was honest about where I worked, people would label me a slut, unintelligent, immoral, anti-feminist, the list goes on … Yet I wasn’t any of those things, and neither were my co-workers.
Since I couldn’t talk about my job with many people, I channeled my anger and frustration over the way I was sometimes treated by customers into my studies. I took every class I could find on women and gender and used assignments to explore feminist issues whenever possible. To complete my college’s honors program, I had to write a thesis. Most of that year-long project was composed on the Hooters’ bar while I waited tables.
I waitressed from my second year of college until I graduated. One to two shifts per week allowed me to make more money than I needed and left plenty of time to focus on my grades. By the time I quit Hooters, I’d graduated magna cum laude and earned a full scholarship to law school.
I never regretted my choice for undergraduate employment, but I never owned it, either. Fifteen years since I last served wings and beer to strangers, most people have no idea that before I became a lawyer turned feminist writer and activist, I was a Hooters Girl.
So, why tell them now?
A couple of years ago, I was watching Jimmy Fallon interview feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Steinem explained how her critics have used her decision to go undercover as a Playboy Bunny to write a journalistic exposé as a way to diminish and discredit her. After pointing out that she wasn’t actually a Bunny, she added that she didn’t want to disavow the women she worked with at the Playboy Club.
“Disavow?” I said aloud to myself.
Was my own silence a lack of solidarity with the women I worked with? As a feminist writer and activist, what did my failure to stand publicly in the truth of my past say?
No woman deserves to be condemned for her paid labor, particularly when her earnings are a fraction of men’s. The problem isn’t waitresses in tank tops and orange bloomers. There isn’t anything inherently profane about the sight of a woman’s body anywhere or in any context. The problem is a patriarchal system that lacks the requisite regard and respect for women — not just their bodies, but their minds and souls.
The brazen misogyny I witnessed at Hooters was hard to swallow, but it wasn’t so unlike what I put up with outside of work: a stranger who rubbed my shoulder without permission “to see what my shirt was made of,” a guy who said I should “eat a hamburger because I was too skinny” — weren’t these men violating and objectifying me? Were they any better than or different from my customers? The setting and circumstances weren’t the same, but their effect on me was.
It doesn’t matter what women do — how much they contort and shape-shift to succeed in a “man’s world,” or whether they hide every inch of their physical form so someone else won’t sexualize them. They’ll never be equal to men until these things change, and that’s going to require a lot more vision, courage and hard work than blaming women, their bodies and their jobs for their problems.
I’m not Gloria Steinem. And my experience as a Hooters Girl isn’t analogous to her experience as a Playboy Bunny. Steinem wasn’t a Bunny in earnest; I was a Hooters Girl. And, at least In that regard, I’m every woman who’s ever worked in an industry where her body was exploited for profits.
I can’t disavow these women because I am them, and they are me. Being a former Hooters Girl doesn’t make me less of a feminist — it makes me a better one.