Do You Want Legs With That?
The experience of dining out is incomplete without a showcasing of sexualized female body parts.
One can only imagine this is what the owners of Cara Operations Ltd., owners of Bier Markt and other dining establishments, were thinking when they instituted a new dress code for their female servers. Instead of a golf shirt and pants, they were now required to wear a short and tight bathing suit—I mean, dress. Only when one server publicly spoke out against the new uniform did the company reverse its decision, but not before fueling a controversy about employee rights and gender inequality.
At the University of Toronto, students are not hesitant to question institutionalized gender norms, and would surely reject a school uniform that mandated gendered clothing on the basis that it was inhibitory to students’ rights of self-expression and freedom of choice. In an employment setting, however, most people would not be so quick to voice such freedoms. Many students will eventually work a uniformed job where they’ll be expected to conform to the rules of their hiring establishment, yet most will be under-informed of their employee rights and afraid to speak up.
Several months ago, I was handed a uniform consisting of a tight-waisted, mid-thigh length kilt, and a tight-fitting V-neck t-shirt that showed off ample cleavage from some of my more well-endowed co-workers. I had just started my first uniformed job as a restaurant hostess and couldn’t quite come to terms with the discomfort I felt in my uniform. Bending down was awkward without the skirt lifting, and working on the patio in windy weather was next to impossible without flashing customers, which happened to me on multiple occasions. I was advised to wear shorts underneath, but since they still had to be hidden under the skirt, they were noticeably short and inconvenient on warmer days. Meanwhile, my male counterparts were wearing shirts that didn’t cling to their bodies and pants that kept their lower halves concealed. Not only did several of my female co-workers express similar annoyance with our uniforms and male co-workers convey sympathy, but we eventually realized that even the law prohibits our employer’s questionable dress code decisions. According to Ontario employment laws, a dress code can’t violate the Ontario Human Rights Code, which states, “While it is acceptable for men and women to have different uniforms, employers must make sure that any uniform policy does not undermine the dignity and right to full participation in the workplace of employees of either sex.” I genuinely wonder how few employers, let alone employees, are aware of this.
At a time when many feel they are battling gendered inequality on a daily basis, especially women, who face consistently unfair and discriminatory conditions in the workplace, uniforms are a more pivotal factor than they may seem to be. They are a direct presentation of normalized gender bias whereby certain standards of appearance are imposed on women, most often to increase their attractiveness for the male consumer.
Several establishments, like Hooters or the Tilted Kilt, which capitalize on scantily-clad women as a key selling point, receive a lot of flak for their commodification of female bodies, but at least these places are unabashedly honest about the kind of mature male demographic they are catering to. However, the places I work, as well as many other establishments out there, are family restaurants attracting both adults and children, the latter of which are vulnerable to the influence of normalized gender expectations. As such, the incorporation of sexism in a family environment is particularly troubling, as it normalizes gender inequalities from a young age, and in a much more subliminal and effective way than in niche establishments.
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A lack of knowledge or its miscommunication are often at the root of these problems, which is then reinforced by misinformed complacency. Employers tend to be unaware of how their decisions perpetuate gender inequality, while employees lack the legal information to fight back. I applaud the server who demanded the right to dress more freely for work because she inspired an overdue conversation, one that calls for our society’s businesses to stick to selling their goods and services instead of making impositions on women’s bodies.