Then she heard the first iteration of what would become a chorus:
“Take off your mask,” dinner ordered her as she took her order one afternoon. “I want to see your beautiful smile.”
“If I do, I feel like I have no respect for myself,” Tran thought, weighing her options. “But if I don’t, he’s going to leave me a bad tip.” Before the pandemic, Tran could earn $ 200 per night. Now she often went hours after her shift without having to seat a single client. She needed the money. So, at a distance of six feet, she lowered her mask. She felt “like a circus animal”, standing there as the client urged her to tell him her ethnicity, saying she was a “beautiful mix”.
“Take off your mask,” a man ordered Drew Allison after serving him at the bar where she works in Knoxville, Tennessee. “I want to see your face; maybe you have moles on there. The statement was so bizarre that Allison obeyed without thinking, briefly pulling her mask under her chin. It wasn’t until later that she realized the implication: If the man found her attractive enough, he was planning on tipping her more. From there, when a male client asked him to take his mask off – and it kept happening – it was almost like asking him to take his shirt off.
One Fair Wage, a campaign dedicated to ending below-minimum wages across the country, released a study last week detailing how workers in the service sector were faring in the pandemic. Overall, One Fair Wage saw lower wages and increased health fears, which they expected. He hadn’t expected an increase in sexual misconduct. But 40% of those polled said harassment – still a problem in an industry where low-paid workers rely on tips (and learn the customer is always right) – had worsened during the pandemic. The mask, intended to protect essential hourly workers, had instead become a gateway to harassment.
“Take off your mask” really means putting yourself at risk of death, ”said Saru Jayaraman, CEO of One Fair Wage,“ so I can judge you. “
I spent a day talking to the waiters and bartenders about the times customers asked them to take off their masks: the way the request was sent out like a flirt but landed as a threat. The fact that male customers may not realize the power of their demands over the livelihoods of their female servers – or worse, they may be fully aware of it. The way masks seemed to dehumanize waiters in the eyes of their customers – now that workers’ frowns and grimaces were made invisible, customers could pretend they didn’t exist, blowing beyond any sense of shame who could have previously controlled them. The way when they refused, they were yelled at, called derogatory names and left with unpaid bills.
“I don’t know how to tell them, ‘I don’t think you understand your request is worse than you think,” said Liz Brooks, who works with Allison in Knoxville.
“Men seem to think it’s lovely,” said Haeli Maas, a bartender in Lawrence, Kan. “But the way they say it – take off your mask – the connotation becomes something dirty. I’m 22 years old. These men are in their fifties and they tell me, “You are really pretty. I wish you didn’t have to wear this mask. “
Before the pandemic, these men could have ogled her anyway; she knows it. But “Take off your mask” made the transaction explicit. These men didn’t even try to hide their gaze. They made it clear that they felt entitled to see his face and they considered providing it part of his job.
This pandemic has changed behaviors, routines and social mores. It’s tempting to read ‘Take off your mask’ as a new form of harassment – something that, like most of 2020, will go away once we have a vaccine, once we can stop wearing masks, once the restaurants are back to full capacity.
But what “Take Off Your Mask” really does is make explicit an imbalance of power that has always existed. It is a group of people who advertise, in the strictest terms, that their viewing pleasure is more important than the personal safety of another group.
“In a way, it’s refreshing to finally have that level of honesty, finally,” Brooks said. “We have given up on the pretense that it is not a look-based profession. I have regulars who have told me, “I only really came here because you were pretty. And now we can have a conversation about how my paycheck now depends on how I can shape my face or style my hair. “
She tries to refuse orders from customers to take off her mask. But she feels like something has been revealed anyway: the darkest secrets of her industry, expectations that previously weren’t told. “Everything is open now.”
Monica Hesse is a columnist who writes about gender and its impact on society. For more information, visit wapo.st/hesse.