By Shiva Zamen
Editor’s note: Positive association given to weight-loss as part of narrative
Standing in the bathroom looking into the floor length mirror, I made sure all the pieces of my uniform were properly in place, starting with my shoes. Laces were tied; socks scrunched and there were no unseemly bulges in my panty hose. My shorts rested in a tricky balance between covering any sort of hip bulge and revealing too much ass cheek. My shirt was tucked in. The hip apron was tied at my waist to make it appear smaller. Cleavage was good. My long thick hair was flat-ironed board straight. Make-up was done, but not too done. After continuous turns in the mirror checking myself at every angle, I thought I’d be able to leave the bathroom and actually step out to the floor. I tried to head for the door but wasn’t ready. Just a couple minutes longer and I’d be ok.
Why was I so hesitant? I had just lost at least 25 pounds and a loser high school boyfriend. I self-identified as a confident person and as such, this was supposed to be easy. This was what I wanted. I had applied a year prior and after being turned down (note the prior weight comment), I had made it a secret mission of mine to become a “Hooters girl”. Funny now, because it isn’t the fact that I worked there that is uncomfortable. It’s the mere memory of this secret desire that lies in the cringe worthy section of my brain. I finally mustered up the strength and left the bathroom a good 30 minutes after I had entered. I had done something by stepping out of those doors that could never be undone. The feeling was immediate and visceral.
Rebellion has never been a foreign concept for me. My dad’s native language was. My relatives, that I’ve (mostly) never met, are foreign. Just like the stories about the land of my father, so deeply engrained in the formation of my earliest memories. My name itself is foreign, despite being with me from birth and the first thing taught to me as a human being walking on the earth. My dad’s quazi-Iranian cultural rules, although strictly and regularly enforced, never cease to be—foreign. Foreign concepts and experiences were just a part of life.
At age thirteen I remember standing down the street talking with a group of neighbor girls. Suddenly, my dad came outside in a hurried and jerky stomp. His eyes practically bulged out of his head. As he insisted I go inside, the skin on his face flushed. I don’t understand what just happened. What did I do? I am mortified. It is obvious he means business and so I go home. I am later made aware that there were a group of boys walking down the opposite end of the street and I needed to be in the house.
This particular moment stands out in my mind for the following reasons: 1) I was oblivious to the boys down the street until my dad made it abundantly clear. 2) I could care less about the boys walking down the street. 3) This had never happened before. Being raised in a population with a generally even spread between sexes, I had been in the presence of boys before without my dad’s near aneurism. Hello puberty!
By stepping out on the floor I felt the weight of the heavy gaze of the regulars who were already stationed in their seats by 10:30 am. I was fresh meat and I was completely aware of it. I felt naked. Despite having fabric “technically” covering my body from the chest down, I might as well have been walking around in a bra and panties. The suffocating feeling of those first moments on the floor is a memory loaded with a thickness that hasn’t dwindled.
Severe self-consciousness was something I did not account for. I had planned for other things in regards to this job choice: my new boyfriend’s bad attitude, a significantly increased income (and the freedom that comes with it), a new friend circle, attention and admiration from my peers, my mom’s reaction and the most anticipated of all—my dad’s complete disapproval. I spent a lot of time calculating how to handle my father once I got the job. I decided to ignore the situation until I couldn’t anymore. I lived with him, so his disapproval was inevitable. But ignoring house rules was my tradition. One that I had started in middle school, coinciding with the seemingly unjust and controlling rules made by my father and enforced by my mother. Pure disregard seemed to be the only defense I had against mounting confusion around why I wasn’t allowed to do certain things purely because I was female.
The “pretty one” was a label that also appeared around that time. My fraternal twin sister and I had spent childhood trying on other labels. The fact that we were born at the same time superseded the fact that we looked completely different, and made it necessary to draw defining lines between us. First, she was the “bald one,” I was the “hairy one.” Then she was the “artistic one”, I the “shy one”. The “smarter one” moniker slowly gained gravitas in grade school, where she was in advanced programs and asked to join in numerous brainy competitions. Labels were acquired on my end as well. The “chubby one” or the “ethnic one” or the “Tom Boy” come to mind first. I was a good student as well, don’t get me wrong, just not as good as her. After my painfully awkward tween stage the label “pretty” was a welcomed reprieve.
On my first day of work I met with my trainer, a beautiful blond named Jessica. She had that girl next-door look except she didn’t smile when she talked and seemed generally un-friendly. I didn’t take her demeanor personally, instead I instinctively wrote it off as another one of the many training tests I would be taking that week. As the morning passed I slowly started feeling more comfortable, at least physically, in my new wardrobe. I took this as a positive sign that all the awkwardness would fade quickly and that I would be OK at Hooters. At our lunch break Jessica gave me the menu and said to order whatever I wanted. She told me I had to eat to learn the menu. But I wasn’t hungry. I was too aware of my body to put anything in it. When I gave her my reason she looked at me blankly and replied, “It’s OK, we all just throw it up later.” I laughed back at her because this had to be a joke. When her facial expression didn’t change I could tell she was serious. What the fuck did I just get myself into?
There’s nothing you could have told me as a headstrong 19 year-old girl that would have prepared me for this specific loss of innocence. Up until that time, “innocent” was not a word I would have used to describe myself; and in my naiveté I could never have fathomed that there was anything else I needed shelter from. The small acts of rebellion turned into bigger ones throughout my teens. And my fight for freedom became a long war filled with many losing battles. I felt I lived in a dictatorship and bucked up against unfitting standards in many ways. Over time, I learned that complete disregard of the oppressive rules my father put in place worked better than fighting or debating over them. What started as arguments over appropriate hobbies, social interactions—or clothes—turned into a wild revolt of any sort of rules, even the most basic (and necessary) ones, like being home by curfew, abiding by the law, and staying away from drugs and alcohol.
But something felt different here, standing in the restaurant. I sensed an underlying sexual danger seething around every corner. I felt it immediately at work and soon got accustomed to it with shocking speed. It is the learned hyper-sexualization that I struggled with the most after my 2-year employment at Hooters and what I suspect my father was trying to shield me from.
During our teen years, my sister became the “good” one. She had the most valuable commodity to my parents: brains. The absolute ONLY thing my dad would brag about was education. Either his education or his sibling’s education, but most commonly the studies of my cousins back in the motherland. “She received a full scholarship. There were only eight given out in the whole country.” He would say semi-annually. I can’t recall if it was the same person he was speaking of or if getting full scholarships were a common occurrence for many of my cousins. Either way the story sounded the same to me. In Iran women and men are considered intellectual equals, a fact my dad was very proud of. As a child, when I would question the reasons women had to cover up he would defend the country’s stance on the matter and always included in his defense that Iran wasn’t like Saudi Arabia. The women could drive and vote! This explanation was lost on me.
Despite my parents being from totally different cultures and decades, their overriding value placed on education and freedom of identity and expression united them. My mother is American, 11 years younger than my father and from a poor working class family that she escaped from at the age of 16. I don’t hear much about that part of her life except that she hates Detroit. My dad came here from Iran 6 months prior to the hostage situation of ’79 at the age of 25, escaping the Shah and his family’s desires regarding their life for him. He wanted to be westernized, he wanted be free.
I saw my dad’s car in the driveway when I got home from my first day of work. I was wearing pajama pants and a t-shirt over my uniform. I walked inside the house in a hurried pace to my room. NO time for inquisitions. After a week of this routine my dad called me and asked me if I was on drugs. I laughed, oblivious to how he came to this conclusion. “You leave everyday in the morning and your gone all day in your pajamas?!” Oh yeah, that. After I finally told him what I was doing all day, more specifically, where I was working, he hung up the phone and didn’t speak to me again for weeks. I felt dirty. I smelled like chicken..
At 5 years old, I overheard my dad tell my mother, “Shiva is the one we have to worry about” after he made me wash the tinker-bell make up off my face that my best friend and I had spent the afternoon playing with. Why couldn’t we play pretend? My mom, the self-proclaimed feminist, had married a man who couldn’t help but be oppressive to women, even if his oppression was only measurable on an American scale. My dad came to America to disconnect from the strong-armed government, the censorship, and the stiff religious oppression. He ended up being a reflection of those stifling values to his family.
My rebellious work choice was how I made my stand against the gender roles my father assigned. On some brackish level between me subconscious and conscious mind, I used what I viewed as a man’s weakness against them. If a man is easily tempted by a women’s appearance then this was the perfect way to profit from their shortcomings. I learned to use misogyny in my favor and it felt empowering. I felt smart and resourceful.
A couple weeks had passed since I started working at Hooters. I had gained my confidence back and the uniform now felt like second nature. I was learning the ropes and making friends with my co-workers. The comradery with my fellow coworkers really helped to soften the awkward adjustment period caused by working in an image driven environment. For every jack-assed moment with a bad table there was a moment of laughter or sharing or relating with another girl. A strong sisterhood formed into lasting friendships.
Blond Jessica was joking about the group bulimia and we are friends to this day. The job was equal parts exciting, entertaining, easy and stressful. It was also disproportionately lucrative. The new boyfriend with a stinky attitude dumped me shortly after my first day. My mom said I didn’t need to be with anyone who didn’t like me exactly the way I was. Cherished advice. My father tried so hard to assimilate into this western culture without loosing his identity. His struggles with a rebellious daughter were never what he imagined when he envisioned his American dream. Consequently, holding the “Hooters Girl” label was not a specific childhood dream of mine either but yet here we both were, together.
After a couple weeks of radio silence I received a call from my dad. He asked if I was still working “there”. I reluctantly replied yes.
“I heard they have good chicken wings, can you bring me some home?”