Smile? Shove it.
Everyone’s face looks better with a smile. A smile represents happiness, contentment, having a good time, a lack of stress and worries. And let’s be honest: There’s plenty to stress us out these days.
But would it make any sense to tell a stranger on the street that their appearance would be greatly improved by wearing coloured contacts? Or cutting their hair? (The 1950s and 1960s practice of sniping at hippies for their long hair being the exception, of course.)
Ask any woman you know if she’s ever been instructed to smile. If you’re a woman, reflect on this for a moment. The answer will likely be yes. Ask men the same question and odds are the answer will be a no, with perhaps a chuckle or odd look thrown in for good measure.
So why are women asked, instructed, ordered and flat-out commanded to smile?
“You’d be so much prettier if you smiled.” “You’d look so much better if you were smiling.” “C’mon, give us a smile.” “I bet you have a beautiful smile.”
It sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? A friendly suggestion.
Or is it yet another way for women to be criticized for their very existence, being forced to meet a man’s expectation of her appearance at his whim?
How many hours of intellectual thought and academic writing have gone into theorizing about the face of the Mona Lisa? How much debate has raged over her lips, whether she’s smiling and, if so, what about?
When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, each and every debate appearance, and all coverage thereof, included details about her facial expressions, in addition to criticizing her tone of voice. This is sexism upon sexism , considering her opponent is best known for an expression of perpetually pursed lips. And when she did smile, people thought – openly, publicly—that she looked crazy and inappropriate.
When Chelsea Clinton was on the cover of Variety, people wondered aloud why she was smiling so much. Turns out, it was because she and the photographer and editor were talking about cute things Clinton’s young daughter says.
A Malaysian man assaulted a woman in New Zealand because she smiled at him, a gesture he took as an invitation to follow her because, according to him, that’s his cultural tradition.
One of the founders of Stop Street Harassment wrote her master’s thesis on street harassment and found, through interviews with more than 1,100 people, that nearly all female respondents had been harassed while walking down the street at least once. In one portion of the author’s work, 225 people were asked had they ever been the recipient of honking, whistling, kissing noises, leering, groping or other aggressive and harassing gestures in public, to which 99% of respondents said they had. More than 65% of those respondents, including men and women, had been harassed on a monthly basis.
An NPR reporter recounted her experience growing up in Egypt, which included being “ambushed by a group of street boys just for wearing shorts.”
It doesn’t always resort to violence: I was one of maybe 30 women to work in this particular IT company, a predominantly male, engineer-focused operation. There wasn’t a week that went by in my not brief time there where one of my male coworkers didn’t tell me to smile. Some knew it drove me crazy and did it anyway, joking with me about it as I glared. Others didn’t know – there were approximately 140 people working in this office, neatly divided into groups—and didn’t think twice about throwing in the suggestion while saying hello in the hallway to and from the kitchen.
Was it in my job description to smile at all times? No. Did it seem like it should’ve been, or was expected to be part of my performance? Yes. I was never called anything evil or hateful for not snapping to and producing a grin, nor did anyone ever press the issue, but it was discomforting.
Another woman told me how she had to stop smiling when walking down the street. Why? Because she was getting sexually harassed multiple times per day by men. They’d ask where she was from, assuming she was some exotic creature because of her friendly and open posture. A friend suggested her smiling so freely made it clear she wasn’t from ‘round those parts. Now she’s adopted what some would lovingly call a “resting bitch face ” and the harassment has dropped considerably.
Smile too much, you’re asking for it (whatever “it” might mean in the moment). Don’t smile enough, you’re a bitch.
We’re literally damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
There are no fewer than 2.37 million articles on why telling women to smile is a bad idea.
It’s not innocuous. It’s patronizing and demoralizing and yet another way people try to control a woman’s appearance. Don’t we have enough problems, from worrying constantly about our weight, our careers, our income, our level of success (real or perceived), to thinking about things that matter, like our health and the well-being of our families?
There’s a great street art project from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh called, simply, “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” Black and white portraits of women are pasted onto walls in public spaces as a way to bring awareness to, and combat, street harassment. The women in the posters have all been accosted, in some way, by men just for walking down the street in the cities where they live.
A columnist for the *Omaha World Herald* wrote a piece last January after interviewing women, both those he knows personally and those who had been strangers to him, about their experiences with being instructed to smile.
“Today I’m here to report this: If men actually wish happiness for femalekind—if we actually value true gender equality—we need to halt all requests that ladies turn that frown upside down. We need to do a bunch of other things, too. But the smiling thing, that’s a start.”
To his credit, the author, Matthew Hansen, says he’s never asked a woman to smile and doesn’t see why men would. But he also admits he didn’t know it was a thing that was done until relatively recently.
My face is not your property.
My expression is not your concern unless we’re engaged in conversation and my expression has shifted in any noticeable way.
My smile is not some puppet or magical thing to appear at your command.
My smile is not your right.
My smile is my right, to display when I feel like it.
Women are not decorations.
Our emotions are OURS.
We’re not your playthings, your objet d’art, your toys, your servants.
We’re not mean, evil bitches if we’re frowning. Sometimes, that’s not even frowning, it’s just how our faces look when not actively engaged in conversation.
I’m strongly considering responding to the next request to smile with a similar one: “You’d be much more handsome if you stopped acting like a dick.”
Can you imagine the names I’d be called? The retorts? The leers? I bet you can.
How sad is that? It’s certainly nothing to smile about.
So the next time you’re tempted to tell a woman to smile, reconsider. And shut the hell up.