It’s early, and I’m only half awake as I walk down the street to the bus stop. I walk past a group of people going the opposite direction; a man comes towards me to say, “Hey, why aren’t you smiling?” It takes a while before I realize what just happened. I keep walking as I hear him mutter something less nice about me. I feel violated, as if my feelings have been taken ransom. Whatever emotion I have or choose to show is suddenly not mine but for the rest of the world to consider and qualify. What would happen if I chose to smile at the request of that stranger? Would he take my response as a signal for him to try his advances at me? Does my refusal to comply mean I'm the stuck-up bitch he claims I am?
On March 15, 2016 MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough sent a tweet that would send waves throughout the world. It was a petty response, something that would’ve been overlooked had it not been a comment that every woman has heard at some point in her life. “Smile! You look prettier that way.”
Smile. You just had a big night. #PrimaryDay— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) March 16, 2016
There’s something eerily invasive about someone telling a woman to smile. You never see someone go up to some dude in line at the Circle K and ask him to show some teeth or to stop frowning. If a man in power stands straight face during a state event, nobody would dare say that he might be under the weather, uncomfortable, or even being disrespectful. And yet, when we listen to TV hosts comment live on a serious moment, they always feel the need to ad a slight jab at a woman who chooses to keep her facial expression neutral. Why is that?
I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer or Girl Who Cried Sexism, but let’s be honest, there’s a sign of objectification at the bottom of this whole debacle. Women are seen as esthetic creatures who should remain compliant and visually agreeable. They should look pretty, nod, and smile while their rights are being taken away. Because this isn’t their world after all; it’s man’s. They’re lucky they're allowed to be in it. While you might be thinking these statements are an exaggeration, within the “harmless” smiling comment there’s plenty of underlying ugliness.
When we think of last year’s US presidential campaign, you’ll notice that many of the attacks on Hillary Clinton were related to how feminine she chose or not to act. She was too emotional or not emotional enough. She was too masculine or not cool-headed. Her smile was fake or she chose not to smile. I don’t remember anyone talking about Donald Trump’s emotions or Bernie Sanders’ giggles. In fact, if someone had even tried to, they would’ve been ridiculed for saying such irrelevant comments.
But being asked to smile is not the extent of these policies on facial muscles. According to recent psychological studies, people who smile too much are seen as naïve and immature. Again, I find it hard to believe a man would be told that their constant laugh means they’re incapable of running their company or keeping their job. This seems to be another situation where women need to calculate their reactions and move to avoid rubbing someone the wrong way.
So let’s take a quick summary:
No smile = angry, antisocial, bitch, unhappy, etc.
Too much smile = stupid, childish, ridiculous, etc.
In other words, can any woman be free of this perpetual judging? No. Because it will be really hard to know precisely when and how to smile so that the male population does not consider you to be irrational or insane. You give too much or you don’t give enough. You’re asking for it or you’re an insatiable person who feels is too good for the rest of the world. Let’s not forget that, despite its assumed insignificance, the smile comment is a micro harassment that permeates through other aspects of everyday life.
Because there’s not that many steps between, “Have you tried smiling more?” and “I saw it in her eyes, she totally wanted it.” It seems exaggerated, but it’s actually quite close. If the female sex is objectified to the point where they’re supposed to make things easier for their male counterparts by smiling, then how different is that from also expecting them to be always willing or in the mood to serve them in a sexual manner? If you treat someone like a piece of furniture, like an accessory –or whatever makes your environment easier to cope–, and have a nicer view, you’re basically programming them to be pawns in your chessboard. You do with them what you please and don’t think of them outside of the use you give them.
I personally hate the term “Resting Bitch Face.” Why can’t it just be neutral resting face? When I’ve been accused of my face being in that setting, I haven’t been thinking of awful things. Most of the time I’m thinking of a scenario including a unicorn wearing a teddy bear onesie while eating cupcakes. But the people around me don’t know that because they don’t ask. They just assume I’m planning how I’ll start World War Three or how I’ll stab them in the eye with my fork. Sometime I’m not even thinking about a particular scenario; my brain is concentrated on getting to where I’m supposed to be going, my schedule for the day, or a million other things. That still doesn't give a stranger or anyone permission to demand I make their view prettier or easier to handle.
It won’t be until women are seen as equal humans that this will end. But who knows? Several men who see themselves as feminists still fall into this same pitfall. Let’s put it in simple terms: I am not here to make your day better. Whatever makes you uncomfortable about my blank stare or burst of giggles is more your issue than it is mine.
So next time someone tells you to smile or tells you to stop smiling, ask them what is it that bothers them? Then as they stand speechless and confused just walk away. It’s not your job to bring some sunshine into their life. You’re both people just trying to get by.
The accompanying artwork is by Tatyana Falalizadeh and her project Stop Telling Women to Smile.
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