A new study examines the mental health and self-esteem problems suffered by women who work at places such as Hooters and the Tilted Kilt.
Imagine if your job required you to work in a minimal amount of clothing.
Now, imagine if your workplace also required you to interact with the public in that skimpy outfit.
In addition, what if your company’s marketing labeled your attire as one of its main attributes?
That’s what waitresses in so-called “breastaurants” such as Hooters and the Tilted Kilt face every day at their jobs.
These women can make significant money from tips, but experts say this type of work environment can create more than just unpleasant encounters with customers.
They say the work climate can harm the women’s self-image as well as produce eating disorders and other mental health issues.
Officials at Hooters and the Tilted Kilt did not respond to Healthline’s request for an interview for this story.
But several experts didn’t hesitate to talk or criticize the situation at “breastaurants.”
“It’s an environment where women are reduced to their bodies,” Shawn Burn, PhD, a professor in the psychology and child development department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, told Healthline.
“This can really do harm and damage to somebody,” added Ora Nadrich, a certified life coach and mindfulness meditation teacher.
A study published last month detailed the potential harm and damage done to “breastaurant” waitresses.
The research was conducted by Dawn Szymanski, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, and Renee Mikorski, a graduate student at the university.
Through an online survey, the researchers interviewed 252 women over the age of 18 who were waitresses at these types of establishments.
Half were college students. A third described themselves as working class, while the rest said they were middle class.
Szymanski and Mikorski said they discovered that women who work in “sexually objectifying restaurant environments” suffered from a host of mental health issues.
These included anxiety, depression, sadness, guilt, insecurity, and even eating disorders.
“These are all not good. I wouldn’t want to experience any of them,” Szymanski, who has done previous research on “breastaurants,” told Healthline.
Szymanski said these mental health problems are caused by a number of factors.
The first is the outfits the women wear that reveal cleavage, most of their legs, and sometimes their abdomens.
In addition, Szymanski said, the waitresses are encouraged to flirt with customers.
And the women experience this environment for eight-hour shifts, sometimes four or five times a week.
“These things build up over time,” Sharon Lamb, PhD, EdD, a professor of counseling and school psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, told Healthline.
Perhaps the toughest thing, the experts agree, is the lack of support the female waitresses may experience from management when a customer gets out of line or the work simply begins to bother them.
Lamb said this atmosphere can force the waitresses to be “good girls” and just go along with it.
“This lack of control can make things worse,” added Burn.
Dawnn Karen, the chief executive officer of Fashion Psychology Success, knows all this first-hand.
Karen was a fashion model and was exposed to this type of working environment when she was younger.
“As a model, I experienced being sexually objectified,” Karen told Healthline.
The experience led Karen to become a pioneer in what she calls the “fashion psychology field.”
“I decided I could try to create boundaries at work or I could do something more,” she said.
“Breastaurant” waitresses also face a variety of clientele.
Unlike a sports bar, there is no minimum age for customers, so waitresses at Hooters and other places end up serving families with young children.
Burn said this can be a “double-edged sword.”
On the one hand, men tend to behave better when they’re with their families.
However, serving hamburgers and fries to a 10-year-old boy while wearing short orange shorts and a tight white shirt can be demeaning.
The women can also worry about the example they’re setting for the young girls at the table.
The experts said the notion that the waitresses in “breastaurants” know what they’re getting into when they accept the job isn’t quite true.
For starters, many of the women need the money and such restaurants can provide a decent living.
In addition, many of these women may have thought the harassment would be minimal and the shifts might even be fun.
“I don’t think they understand the full experience they’re getting into,” said Szymanski.
“I don’t think they signed up to be harassed,” added Nadrich.
The experts said some of the waitresses may have had self-esteem or body-image issues when they took the jobs.
“Some of the women on some level desire the validation,” said Karen.
“Some of the girls feel like they’ve arrived when they’re hired,” added Nadrich.
Those feelings, however, can come crashing down after a few months on the job.
“People who have to deal with this shouldn’t be blamed for it,” said Lamb.
It appears Hooters, the Tilted Kilt, and other similar establishments aren’t going away any time soon.
By most reports, the “breastaurant business” is booming.
“All you have to do is drive down the street and you can see these restaurants,” said Szymanski.
So, what can be done to make life a little better for these waitresses?
The experts had several suggestions.
The first was to give female applicants a better idea of what the job entails.
“These girls need to know what they’re signing up for,” said Nadrich.
Szymanski said the restaurants should also screen applicants for any potential mental health issues.
Most importantly, the experts said, there should be better organizational support for the waitresses.
“Management has to treat employees as fully human,” said Burn, who worked as a waitress in college.
“There are a lot of issues here,” added Nadrich, “and I don’t think people are aware of that.”