Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Stop telling women to smile

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Sometimes women don't feel like smiling, because they're only human!Photo / Thinkstock
Sometimes women don't feel like smiling, because they're only human!Photo / Thinkstock

What is it about being approached by a strange man out of the blue and told to "Smile!" that's so stomach-knottingly aggravating? Is there something a little bit passive aggressive about it, or are you just over-sensitive?

Yes, there is, and no, you're not.

As Julie Gernstein writes for The Frisky, "While the sentiment may at first seem harmless, the implication is that women only exist to be objectified by men - that by not smiling, we're not fulfilling our end of the bargain."
Basically, it's a low-level form of street harassment. By no means do the majority of men do it, obviously - on the contrary, it'd be just the tiniest fraction - but those who do are sure as hell not making the call to other men.

At the very least, it's an obnoxious and thoroughly misguided attempt at establishing contact. (Also, what do they expect will come of it? 'Oh - I wasn't smiling? Please excuse my momentary lapse in acute self-consciousness and BED ME IMMEDIATELY.')

One particular incident that occurred about eight years ago has stuck in my mind: I was standing outside a bar, steps away from a public figure notorious for his forays into young models. He had several in his company at the time, and for all intents and purposes should have been content with his lot. But no - glancing across and perhaps insulted I didn't immediately respond with a fawning gaze, he sauntered over, stood directly in front of me, and out it came. "Smile!"

I never forgot it, which in itself annoyed me, because no doubt he forgot about it precisely one drink/young model later. Why should a comment so seemingly benign get me so riled up, I wondered. Why, when I've had far more memorable confrontations in my life, should that keep grinding my gears, years later?

Because "Smile!" makes you feel powerless and exposed, that's why. And it's often exacerbated by the fact you don't know what to say back, seeing as - superficially - it's dressed up as a benign, well-meaning comment. Except, it's not benign at all. Or well-meaning. It's based on the deeply embedded assumption that women should always look cheerful and smiley. That you're public property; and owe the guy - who in that moment is eyeballing you like a chop at The Mad Butcher - your sunniest grin.

Why should a smile be the female default, anyway? Why does the lack of a smile on a woman translate as dourness? Men can non-smile all they like and be held up as mysterious or brooding, or whatever else infers James Dean-esque appeal.

There are plenty of reasons I might not be smiling, seeing as I'm a human on this earth. Maybe I'm running late to the most important meeting that ever was; maybe I had a disagreement with my boyfriend; maybe there's been a family crisis. Or maybe I just don't stand around monitoring myself from the outside to ensure I radiate your idea of Being a Lady.

There are plenty of ways to approach a women. This is not one of them.

And it's not just me, I promise. A quick poll revealed immediately that it's a common, everyday gripe:

"YES! I freaking hate when bastards say that. It's usually crusty old pervs in bars trying to make conversation"

"Yes, and it's almost always a creepy guy who wants to have a conversation with me."

"Yes! Last time it was a security guard at an electronics store. Creep."

"Oh hell yes. How dare they make assumptions about me?"

"Ugh, yes. One memorable one was on the tube and I'd just broken up with a boyfriend. A bloke said 'Cheer up love, might never happen'."

An artist called Tatyana Fazlalizadeh recently launched a street art project called Stop Telling Women To Smile. No doubt many will find her pieces overly serious, but as street art blog Faz puts it: "A lot of people, men AND women, will not understand [this project]. And that's okay. This project is not asking for there to be zero interaction between men and women in public spaces ... This project is not to persuade women to feel offended. Rather, this project is for those who do feel offended by unwelcome aggressive treatment from men."

At which point it'd be remiss of me not to assert that yes, women do this too: "Smile!" "Cheer up!" - or, equally as irritating - "Come on! Dance." The difference, though, is that men don't already feel on display in the public sphere. Girls making such calls are 1. drunk, usually, and 2. free of agenda, outside of generally being as irritating as possible. So my sympathies lie elsewhere, I'm afraid, even if I can 100 per cent understand the urge to - as one succinct male friend put it - "kill them or stab their eyes out with tooth picks."

Having said that, anyone anywhere who's chirped, "Smile!" "Come on - dance!" "Cheer up, it might never happen!" or "You look tired!" really, really needs to not do that. Whoever you are, and whomever you're chirping at. It adds nothing to the world - nothing!

Also, if I were you I'd be more concerned with the fact you're grinning, dancing, cheerful and wide-awake 24/7. THAT is cause for concern.

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