Don’t Tell Me To Smile
Beginning my senior year of high school and throughout college, I worked at a small store in the mall. During my break, as I walked to and from the food court, it was not uncommon to cross paths with any number of random men who felt the need to tell me to smile. I mostly pretended not to hear them, but occasionally, I would comply with a tight-lipped, sarcastic smirk that I hoped would translate to a polite version of the middle finger.
Why do I need to smile, and who are you to insist that I do so?
I wasn’t smiling, but I wasn’t frowning, either. I was minding my own business. I was probably trying to balance my checkbook in my head and figure out a way to justify spending an hour’s worth of wages on a meal that I’d have less than 10 minutes to eat. I confess to consciously avoiding eye contact with anyone, but only because stopping to chat with a familiar face during my too-short break could mean going without dinner that night.
Somehow, this neutral expression of mine had become cause for alarm among the mall-walkers and 40-year-olds aiming to make a career of selling bolo ties from a kiosk. “Smile!” they would shout as I rushed past them. But I didn’t want to smile. All I wanted was my slice of pepperoni and a large Coke.
I wasn’t an angsty teenager. I always smiled and said “thank you” when someone held the door for me. I smiled when I was helping a customer or when I was greeted by a store employee. I smiled when I ran into a friend or when I passed the puppy window in the pet shop. I loved to smile, I just didn’t want to be told to smile.
As a young woman, I could never articulate why this offended me; I just knew that being told to smile was something that made me very uncomfortable and uncharacteristically angry. It wasn’t until I had my own daughter that I recognized these remarks as a form of harassment.
Telling a woman that she needs to smile is disparaging and condescending. It is as though, unless she is smiling, a woman is of little worth, and people somehow feel like it’s their job is to bring her up to par. When someone insists that I smile, it makes me feel like he believes it is my duty to aesthetically please him with my appearance. Imagine walking up to me and commanding that I lose 15 pounds or change my hairstyle; these inappropriate behaviors are really no different from telling me to smile.
Demanding a smile from a complete stranger is audacious. No one has the power to dictate another person’s outward expression of feelings. It is intrusive and invasive, and even more so if the person being told to smile is on her own time. You know nothing about this individual on the train, in line at the grocery store, or riding the elevator in your office building. You have no idea how she is feeling or what is on her mind. She is not on-the-clock nor is she trying to engage with you. She is under no obligation to change her expression in order to make someone in her vicinity feel more comfortable.
For a long time, I have wondered what is gained by telling someone to smile. Is it power? Is it contempt? Is it a misguided attempt at a pick-up line? How is coming up to a complete stranger and telling her to manipulate her body into a “more appealing” demeanor anything but an insult?
My smile does not belong to you, and you have no right to insist on it.
I look at my teenage daughter, and I see myself at her age. I worry that she will be disrespected in the ways that so many of us have been. I want her to know that she is always in control of her own body. Her beautiful smile is hers alone, and she is in charge of who is on its receiving end. It saddens me to think that someday, someone may approach her and convey that she is not good enough or pretty enough unless she plasters on a forced expression of joy.
I’m teaching her to stand up for herself. We talk about putting safety before politeness. She is aware of boundaries and how no one is entitled to invade her personal space or demand that she give up something to which she alone holds the rights, even if that something is as simple as a smile.
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This post was written by Yvette Manes exclusively for BonBon Break Media LLC.