I don’t know about you, but there are two things that inspire me to wake up in the morning: the thought of a new episode of The Mindy Project on Hulu and the thought that I am the leading woman of my own story. I want to be an entrepreneur, I want to live in a single story yellow house two blocks from my favorite pubs and coffee shop, I want to find and master using the perfect black eye-liner, I want a dog who likes to cuddle, I want to be able to eat unlimited carbohydrates and I want a rack of my favorite red wine that is always stocked.
I am a young woman who at 22 has a fairly solid vision of her dream life. I always said that when I finally knew what I wanted, I would do anything to get there. Growing up, I watched my mom fight for equal pay and respect in an industry ruled by men. She reminded me that women had to work twice as hard and be twice as tough to get the respect a man might in the same job. I was raised to believe that to get anything I wanted, I had to earn it through hard, soul-sucking work.
Last summer, I finally started gaining the opportunities I’d spent years working towards. I was 22, and had booked my first weddings as a professional photographer all on my own. I applied for a third job at a pizza shop downtown; It was the place where men came after floating the river or hiking a mountain, usually with bearded guys who looked like they belonged in LL Bean.
The girls who worked the counter were notorious for looking like they shared closets with Jessica Day. At first, working three jobs felt like I was living the dream and doing what I was “supposed” to. I was driving every other weekend to a different wedding venue, going to work as a barista by 4:30am, and working eight hour closing shifts at the pizza shop. I dedicated hours to picking out the “cutest-but-I’m-not-trying-too-hard-to-look-cute” outfits and smiled at customers while holding trash bags leaking pizza grease and beer.
However, as you can expect, the high of busting my butt beyond 70 hours a week didn’t last. My bosses at the pizza shop started forgetting to give me my requested days off that I’d told them I needed when they hired me. They also started inquiring about my other job as a barista and if I had thought more about quitting. Slowly, they started correcting errors in my clothing choices and how I’d done my hair that day, telling me my skirt was too long or my hair made me looked younger. The hours I spent on my appearance to please my bosses felt necessary to keep my job. When I got complimented, I felt like I was doing something right. It made sense at the time that this was a pizza shop that catered to a specific demographic, and I was simply trying to help fit in with that demographic.
It didn’t occur to me until later that what was really happening was that I was being objectified. There was only one male who worked at the counter and he was never scrutinized for wearing jeans or being a bit scruffy. He could look sloppy, but when the girls did, they were told with a condescending smile that looking nice was part of the job requirement.
After just five weeks of working at the pizza shop and quitting my second job as a barista at their urgency, I was “let go”. Never had I actually given a customer the wrong food or messed up their order, but they fired me nonetheless. I loved serving customers and I wanted to be the perfect counter girl so badly that the part of my brain that told me I was being harassed turned off. Every single thing I seemed to do got a dirty look from the owner of the restaurant.
I remember looking at my reflection in the mirror after I was fired, seeing a curled hair fall in front of my mascara streaked eyes and observing my pink polka dot shirt I had only bought because my manager complimented me whenever I wore pink.
It took me months to realize that the pride I felt in serving customers with a smile and joy had given way to snapping at them because I had been so scared of messing up in front of a manager. It took me months to even see that bursting into tears every night after finishing a shift because of the pressure to be a perfect employee was no way to live; that no job should make you terrified of walking through the door. For five weeks, I felt weak for feeling like I couldn’t handle it and I convinced myself that jobs were just supposed to suck.
The truth is, when the rest of my friends were out rafting or swimming at the river, I felt a certain amount of pride knowing I was working. I felt like I was ahead of them and like I was proving myself. I was exhausted almost all the time, saw my friends every couple of weeks, and saw my boyfriend when he was already asleep—but it felt like working this hard was how I needed to earn self-respect and happiness. I couldn’t be happy if I was just sitting at home watching Netflix all day when I could be working. I was desperate to show myself and everyone around me that I deserved my happiness because I’d run myself into the ground with my hard work. To me, the two were one and the same.
I still stand by the unfair and cruel reality that women in the workforce have to work harder than men to gain equal respect. But that pressure not to be seen as “lazy” or “useless” sometimes damages us more than we think. We feel a tremendous amount of stress to do it all and do it all with a smile. No one knew why I was working the equivalent of three jobs for as long as I did; including me. I listened to some voice inside of me that said if I wasn’t suffering, I wasn’t doing enough.
I think we need to remind ourselves that the answer to gaining respect isn’t through how much crap we can tolerate, but in how we value and respect ourselves. We all know women deserve better than objectification, sexual harassment, and feeling demeaned, but putting up with it until we get to the top isn’t the means of gaining equality.
We need to put ourselves first and respect our work. We are entitled to success just as much as we are entitled to sit back with a beer. We have to value ourselves and we need to value the contributions we can make in the workforce. We can take all the time we need to get where we want in life and we are allowed to do it at our own pace. We need to tell ourselves that we are allowed to be selfish, , and we are entitled to define success by our own terms. Perfect wardrobe, or not.
Written by Maggie Grace
See more from Lydia Magazine’s Summer 2015 issue below!