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Servers in pigtails earn more tips. It’s creeping them out.

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
6 min

Before her third consecutive double shift at a pizzeria last year, Grace Velez pulled her hair, which fell past her waist, into pigtails. Velez says she was used to inappropriate comments from customers, but what she experienced that day shocked her.

Regulars who usually never tipped put money in the pizzeria’s tip jar. A few older men winked at Velez, 21, as they dropped in cash. Another man, who Velez guessed was in his 30s, tried to flirt with her for 10 minutes before asking her if she was a high school student.

About halfway through her shift, the University of North Florida student began to suspect that it was her pigtails that made her tips double. She typically made $45 to $75 in tips during double shifts, but she earned $140 that day. On a whim, she made a TikTok about what had happened.

“It’s something that you notice, and then you never unsee it,” Velez said. “It drew a lot of attention to the fact that young women are definitely fetishized.”

The TikTok post was viewed 1.4 million times, and comments streamed in from others who had similar experiences.

“i do it because it’s such an easy hairstyle when i forgot to put up my hair but i’m always getting hit on by older men and now it makes sense,” one commenter wrote.

“Wait this makes me nervous I didn’t think ab that one time I wore two braid pigtails cuz I was running late and got a 15 dollar tip that night😳,” said another.

When Bella Woodard saw Velez’s TikTok and others commenting about how “tiptails” brought in extra cash, Woodard decided to try it herself.

The 21-year-old usually styled her hair in a low ponytail or braids and earned from $200 to $400 a night from tips at her summer job at Neptunes Kitchen and Dive Bar in North Carolina.

“If this works … that is so weird and gross,” Woodard said in a TikTok that shows her putting her hair into pigtails before her shift. “But I’m down for more tips, so it doesn’t matter.”

That night, one man gave her a $135 tip, and since then, her nightly tips when she wears pigtails have increased to about $400 to $500. The pigtails were such a hit that Woodard vowed to continue sporting her hairstyle.

“A lot of older men would tell me they really liked my pigtails and would make little comments about my hair,” she said. “It was very odd.”

Woodard’s video garnered 5.6 million views. After watching the video, one viewer said she would never put pigtails in her daughter’s hair again. A former Hooters employee commented that servers there don’t wear pigtails because “it sexualizes little girls, we stay true to that rule.” (Some Hooters of America workers were not happy with the new, more revealing uniform shorts rolled out last year, but the business later said employees could choose which shorts they wanted to wear.)

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Other servers like Velez and Woodard have been part of a viral TikTok trend showing that wearing pigtails is a moneymaker. However, the phenomenon has also sparked criticism over how women in the service industry are tipped based on their appearance and widely harassed in hospitality roles.

Although the servers’ pigtail stories are far from scientific, experts aren’t surprised.

Young women, single mothers and immigrants make up most of the hospitality industry’s server, runner and busser workforce, said Sekou Siby, chief executive and president of the worker-led nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Because service workers are heavily reliant on tips, they often have little choice but to accept mistreatment from diners, he said.

“It’s very discomforting. I have my own daughter in college working in a restaurant,” he said. “She switched restaurants four times because of this type of situation.”

Women in service roles are sometimes encouraged by their bosses to dress provocatively or wear red lipstick to be more attractive and rack up more money, said Juan Madera, a University of Houston professor who specializes in industrial and organizational psychology.

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“Women will report that they’re encouraged to flirt a little,” he said. “Part of the industry, especially when you rely on tips, is being super nice and really friendly.”

But research shows that some customers may perceive servers’ kind gestures as an invitation to flirt back, Madera added, and the “customer is always right” mentality dissuades workers from addressing the sexual harassment that’s rampant within the service industry. Ninety percent of women and 70 percent of men working in restaurants have faced sexual harassment at work, according to a 2018 study from the Harvard Business Review. It’s so normalized that workers are less likely to perceive a comment or behavior as harassment when it comes from guests than when co-workers say or do it, Madera said.

“A lot of servers see it as part of the job, that … they’re going to be harassed … and sexualized by customers,” Madera said.

To address the issue of harassment in the food service industry, the National Restaurant Association created ServSafe, a sexual harassment prevention training program that educates employees and managers.

Additionally, worker-led nonprofit organizations such as ROC United and One Fair Wage have advocated that restaurant workers receive at least the minimum wage to give tipped workers the economic opportunity to step away from abusive customers and work environments.

“When you pay workers a full wage, they’re … not completely reliant on the tips to feed their kids, so they can say, ‘Buzz off,’ ” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. “They don’t feel the same need to wear pigtails because they can count on a wage from their boss.”

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The federal minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour. But in the seven states that require restaurant employers to pay the state’s minimum wage before tips, workers have reported less sexual harassment than in states that require only the federal tipped minimum wage, according to an ROC United report.

“We shouldn’t have to wear pigtails to make tips,” Jayaraman said. “We shouldn’t have to put ourselves out there more than any other professional, and that’s the bottom line.”