Sexually-objectifying ‘breastaurants’ linked to anxiety and disordered eating in waitresses

New research in the scientific journal Psychology of Women Quarterly suggests that sexually objectifying restaurant environments can be harmful to the psychological health of waitresses.

“My research team and I noticed that some women are immersed in subcultures and settings where treating women as sex objects is not only promoted but culturally sanctioned,” said the study’s corresponding author, Dawn M. Szymanski of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “One example of this is the so called ‘breastaurants’ that put women’s bodies and sexuality on display and elicit and approve of the male gaze. Given the growth of these types of restaurants and the recent media attention focused on them, we wondered if and how working in these types of environments might be linked to mental health problems.”

The study examined 252 waitresses working in restaurants in the United States. The ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 66, but the average age was 30. About half of the participants were enrolled in college at the time of the study.

The researchers found higher levels of anxiety and disordered eating among waitresses who agreed with statements such as “In the restaurant I work, female servers/waitresses are encouraged to wear sexually revealing clothing” and “In the restaurant I work, male customers stare at female servers/waitresses.”

“Essentially, we found that working in sexually objectifying restaurant environments are not good for waitresses’ psychological health,” Szymanski explained to PsyPost. “More specifically, we found that working in higher levels of sexually objectifying restaurant environments were related to more anxiety and disordered eating among waitresses.”

Additional findings suggest that the anxiety and disordered eating were linked to reduced levels of power and control among waitresses.

“Waitresses working in restaurants that sexually objectified their female employees were more likely to have less organizational power and status in the restaurant than men, which in turn was related to a lack of personal power and control in that setting,” Szymanski added. “This lack of both organizational and personal power was then related to more rumination, which in turn is was related to more anxiety and disordered eating. Our findings reveal the important role that contextual factors may have on waitresses’ coping responses and mental health symptoms.”

Szymanski said her study had some limitations.

“The major caveat is that our study was based on cross-sectional data and conclusions about causality or directionality cannot be conclusively made. Thus, future research using experimental and longitudinal designs are needed. Research is also needed to examine variables that may intensify or weaken the links between working in sexually objectifying environments and waitresses’ mental health.”

The study, “Sexually Objectifying Environments: Power, Rumination, and Waitresses’ Anxiety and Disordered Eating“, was also co-authored by Renee Mikorski.