I was 19 years old when I was first hired to work as a receptionist at a spa in an Atlantic City casino. I had been working since I was 15, but this was the first “Real Job” I had—in that it did not involve polishing silverware or folding t-shirts.
I wore a blazer to work. My hourly rate was in the double-digits for the first time in my life. I was excited to feel like an adult, and expected to emerge from the experience with a professional demeanor as smooth and polished as the brushed-steel desk I stood behind each day.
Most of the other employees were also young women. Early on, we were schooled in company protocols and procedures, but also in the spa’s distinct form of politesse—which was inherently deferential and took its cues from outdated codes of femininity: dutiful, deferential, ladylike. As a part of my employee training, I was instructed to clasp my hands behind my back and encouraged to wear heels—but was not allowed to sit down over the course of our nine-hour shifts.
The bulk of our training focused on how we spoke to customers. The company gave us one script, in which we couched even the most unfortunate situations in the most obliging ways possible. We invited guests to share their experience with us if they were unhappy about something. We were never booked, we were fully committed. And we could not say you’re welcome to guests—it was always my pleasure.
It was clear that we were meant to perform a part, a role that was somewhere between the consummate hostess and the pert niece.
At first, I took pleasure in being able to fulfill this role. I could speak in a soft, soothing voice. I could be gentle and gracious, could move through space with hushed footfall and perfectly applied lipstick. At that point in my life, society had taught me to wonder whether I was making everyone around me happy before I let myself think about whether I was happy or even comfortable, or what it meant that my job so overtly conflated femininity with being servile and sticky-sweet.
I quickly came up against the limits of the language that we were instructed to use, and it became apparent that guests of the spa did not consider the need for courtesy to be mutual. Harassment was commonplace, as much a part of my days as processing payments for pedicures. We had our script, those rote, empty phrases, but too often the customers often wanted another script entirely, like the man greeted me by saying Good morning, Angel, and when I asked him if he was checking in for an appointment, he ignored me, leaned over the desk, close enough that I could feel his breath on my face, and said, You are supposed to say, I’m not that innocent.
I cannot count the number of instances when a man came in or called to book a massage and asked for physical descriptions of every female therapist working that day, or the number of happy ending jokes—or serious inquiries guised as jokes—that I heard.
The professional restraint we were taught to exude under all circumstances had the opposite effect that I thought it would: instead of giving me control over these situations, it rendered me defenseless, circumscribed all of my responses to useless stock phrases that still came down to that tired ethos: the customer is always right. All I could do was smile and gently deflect from offensive, sexist or cruel comments—then hate myself for smiling when what I wanted most was to scream.
Ultimately, I could always find ways to rationalize my passivity: The economy was tanking; I was lucky to have a job. The stylists would trim our hair for free on slow days. There were afternoons when, on our lunch breaks, many of us would book ourselves a massage room and lay down for an hour with lavender scented eye pillows draped over our faces, giving ourselves the rare pleasure of performing for no one, steeling ourselves to face the rest of the day.
Many years after I left that job behind, I wrote a novel set in Atlantic City. One of my characters also works at a casino spa. I wanted to use a way to examine not just the daily occurrences of sexism and dismissal of personhood that occur on the front lines of customer service in a place like Atlantic City, but the systems that allow those instances to occur—the society that metes out permission for men’s bad behavior and punishment for women who try to push back.
Ultimately, navigating and undoing the expectations for women’s conduct in the workplace, at all levels, is a much bigger and more vexed issue than reflecting on the expectations of a single job in a single city. It requires taking a hard, and quite often, uncomfortable look at all the other ways I’ve allowed these expectations to seep into all aspects of my life: the times I reflexively say excuse me when a man bumps into me on the street. The times I tell myself my day will run more smoothly if I make my feeling look and sound smaller, tidier.
It’s about seeing and embracing everything that traditional beauty standards reject: the unruly, the messy, the ugly. But on the other side, there’s true power in it too, waiting to be seized.