In high school, I prided myself on the ability to roll a joint while also driving stick. The cops caught on my senior year, slapping me with a possession charge and a $1,200 fine, a small fortune to a teenager who could barely scrounge $2.75 from the family change drawer for a pack of Camel Lights.
“You’re paying me back for this,” my mother told me. “Every last cent.”
That was going to be a problem: I’d blown off my previous occupation as a lifeguard in favor of a pot habit, which was basically free when you dated the dealers. Every job application I filled out seemed to present the same problem: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime other than a traffic violation?” I didn’t have the balls to sell drugs, nor the dancing skills to swing around a pole without landing in someone’s lap (at least not in an good way). I knew of one place—and one place only—that would look straight past my pot addiction and direct its gaze elsewhere: Hooters.
The story of how I got a job at Hooters actually starts when I was about 10 years old. I wore a training bra in fifth grade, and like all training bras, mine got snapped. Before then, I was a miniature athlete. I played soccer, collected enough first-place swimming ribbons to fill a cork board, and even perfected a back flip off the high dive. But in adolescence, I noticed my rectangular-shaped body morphing into more of an oval. Participating in sports that required a Speedo induced more anxiety than endorphins.
The more I began to dislike my body, the more I punished myself with the guilt of overeating. In the mid-'90s, packaged food was the name of my game: Pop Tarts, Chips Ahoy, Cinnamon Toast Crunch. By 15, I was 20 pounds overweight and would do anything to gain acceptance. That included sneaking out to meet boys and drink beer. My parents caught me one night when my radio alarm clock blasted Bon Jovi at 2 a.m., revealing the bloated pillow dummy I’d carefully staged before slipping out the side window. As punishment, they forced me to get a job at McDonald’s in order to impart some moral lesson that I never quite learned. Instead I felt humiliated, swishing around in polyester pants and a maroon visor as I doled out free fries to upperclassmen.
That’s when I met Mary Jane. She was my antidote to feeling anything. Just a few hits off a joint and I could put a serious dent in a bag of Doritos and not even remember—let alone know what the hell I was eating. I once convinced myself halfway through a box of Grape Nuts that someone had conspired against me to refill it with kitty litter. Looking back, it was probably just stale. But even extreme paranoia was a small price to pay for short-term memory loss, especially when there were things you didn’t want to remember.
At 17, I quit the varsity soccer team, because I hated the new coach. One spring afternoon, in the middle of a scrimmage, I went to toss the red mesh jersey I’d thrown over my T-shirt into a plastic bin. The new coach noticed I was having trouble untying it, so he came over to “help” me. I felt his hot breath on my neck as he fumbled with the knot near my left breast.
“I got it,” I said.
I later complained to the school principal that he’d touched me inappropriately. She either wasn’t willing to take the word of a teenager who reeked of weed or just didn’t care, because no disciplinary action was ever taken to my knowledge.
“He’s a petter-ass,” my high school boyfriend explained, before handing me a loaded bong.
The next year, I wore a grey tube top with a cropped knit shrug to school—let’s call it a youthful, slinkier version of the twin-set. I was walking out of the lunchroom with my friends when the principal leaned in, as if to tell me something important.
“Cover up,” she said.
When you have large breasts, clothing fits tighter in the bust. That is a fact. By 18, I noticed my 34D bra-size caught prolonged stares. I’d lost a few pounds, and my chubby cheeks were starting to give way to cheekbones. Finally, a face I could work with. I thought being more attractive to men somehow gave me power—one that I had no idea how to wield. I may have felt like Barbarella, but I acted more like a toddler with a can of mace.
I did know there was money to be made off my newly banging curves, so when faced with my $1,200 predicament, I decided to cash in. I figured I could sell a few hot wings over the summer, pay off my debt, and forget the whole thing ever happened before I left for college that fall. I took a deep inhalation from my hand-blown glass bowl, squeezed a couple drops of Visine into both eyes, and then drove my family’s Honda Accord straight to the newly erected Hooters.
“Do you happen to be hiring?” I asked a man in his mid-30s at the host stand. He looked pleased by my decision to wear board shorts and one of those camisoles with a built-in bra, which I assumed meant that you didn’t have to wear a real one.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“That’s too bad,” he said and handed me an application. “You can’t serve alcohol until you’re 19, but you can start as a hostess.”
I was actually relieved. This meant I would only have to wear a pair of khaki shorts and a white polo. I filled out the application as fast as I could and tried not to ogle the waitresses who swished by in orange briefs to check on their tables or drop off pitchers of beer. They made working in the equivalent of a tankini look easy—fun, even. I noticed the bartender giggling as foam collected in plastic cups she was filling directly from the tap for two men in baseball caps.
At the time, I thought controlling the alcohol somehow meant controlling the men, which would prove to be an ineffective lifelong strategy. Alcohol only seems to make them more brazen, regardless of who is dispensing it. I did like that the bartender had a 3-foot safety zone between her body and the customers. I’d learned as lifeguard that the less clothing you’re wearing, the more men will find a reason to need to brush against you.
The next week, when I showed up for training, the first order of business was to fill out my W-4 forms. The second: finding a uniform that fit. I asked for a size medium shirt and shorts and was handed a small in both.
“It’s really too bad you’re not 19,” said the manager. “You would look great in the uniform.”
I thought I might vomit up the Wheat Thins I’d inhaled for lunch, if it weren’t for the stomach-soothing properties of marijuana.
There was actually nothing I feared more than wearing that getup, and not because I felt somehow above it. The white stretchy tank top and orange shorts would have fit right in with the hair-bleaching kits I shoplifted on my way to the tanning salon. My real fear was what it would reveal: Everything I hated about myself. One dimple of cellulite and the entire restaurant would know I was a phony. In my mind, the only thing worse than being a Hooters Girl was a being a fake-ass Hooters Girl.
I went into the bathroom to find a gaggle of chatterbox ladies trying on their new uniforms, snapping orange hot pants over hosiery, and comparing asses in the mirror. “How do I look?” one said to another while sucking in a pierced belly button. I turned around just to change my shirt. The pot I’d smoked an hour before was starting to fade, and the reality of the spectacle was setting in.
I looked in the mirror at my hostess uniform, which made me look like a golf caddy in comparison to the other women. It reminded me of the summers I spent poolside, feeling like a beached whale in a one-piece while bronzed babes sat oiling themselves in string bikinis. I changed back into my regular clothes and walked out.
“Sorry,” I gave the manager his khaki shorts back. “I can’t do this.”
He looked at me with the concern of a school counselor—the ass-pettering kind.
“Did something happen with the other girls?”
I didn’t have any answers, at least not that I could express at the time. Instead, I made a beeline for the front door, drove across the street to the bowling alley parking lot, and lit up a joint. A few weeks later I got a check from Hooters for $2.16, which I never cashed, but I didn’t throw it away either. I put it in a box and forgot about it.
As much as I tried to erase Hooters from my mind, I seemed destined to relive the experience in the years that followed. First, I landed a waitress gig at a tavern run by a soft-spoken older man with a penchant for giving unsolicited shoulder rubs. And the uniform: khaki shorts and a cotton tank top. Next, I upgraded to a bartender position at a club, where the dress code was only implied — tight, short or low-cut. Better yet, combine all three and walk for the night with a few hundred-dollar bills burning a hole in your daisy dukes.
One of my last jobs in the service industry was at a sushi restaurant in Chicago, where I lived immediately after college. Again, the uniform: a ribbed tank that fell just above the top of my jeans, which in those days were low-cut, tight, and flared at the hem. I resented having to wear clothes that were perpetually soaked in soy sauce and whatever hellacious blue liquor is required to make something called the “Shark Bowl.”
Instead of buying weed, I spent my extra bartending cash on a new addiction: off-price designer merchandise from Filene’s Basement. I had discovered fashion, or perhaps more aptly, style. I found that dressing for myself was much more satisfying than dressing for anyone else. I knew I couldn’t hack it as a bartender much longer but didn’t have a clue what to do with my adult life. One thing was certain: I was running out of fake smiles.
I found it difficult to evade obnoxious customers at the restaurant—men who came alone to drink and stare. It had been much easier to deflect unwanted attention at a nightclub with ten other people requesting you mix them, “I dunno, something good.” After about six months, I was fired, presumably because of my bad attitude. I could no longer shrug off the never-ending onslaught of harassment. That included when the manager asked if I wanted to accompany him back to his place one night after work.
“Um, no thanks,” I answered.
Emotionally exhausted, I got a job at a clothing store and took out another loan from my parents—this time to move to New York City, where I found a job working for a fashion designer. I think my interest in clothing was strategic, a way to regain control of how my body was perceived. So I guarded it in sleek designs. If anything, I erred on the side of leaving too much to the imagination.
By 30, I’d created my own uniform, which was decidedly unsexy and surprisingly on-trend, right down to the wide-rimmed glasses. I even stopped wearing makeup. Finally, a face I don’t have to work with. I wielded my sexuality less like a weapon and more like a favorite perfume: to be enjoyed sparingly and at my own discretion. And I embraced my feelings instead of watching them drift away through a haze of pot smoke. I may have still been a woman who would kill for two minutes alone with a King Size bag of Peanut M&Ms in a universe where calories didn’t matter—but at least I was my own woman.