Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Don't tell a woman to smile

Weirdly, a term was coined to describe the visage of women who don't go around smiling all day: "Resting B*tch Face". Photo / Getty
Weirdly, a term was coined to describe the visage of women who don't go around smiling all day: "Resting B*tch Face". Photo / Getty

When I was in my twenties and thirties (just the other day, then) seldom would a week go past in which an older man, usually a stranger, would look at me and say: "Cheer up. It might never happen."

From time to time, I would ponder this particular turn of phrase and wonder whether I had an unusually glum expression compared to the rest of the population. Not being a sports follower and being located in rugby-mad New Zealand, I would also wonder whether this was some cryptic reference to an upcoming All Blacks match. (It wasn't.)

I may have been bewildered by this at the time but now I know such expressions are a sexist, patronising and demeaning way of attempting to make women more pleasing on the male eye. Who would have thought? Certainly not me when I was overthinking this sentiment and wondering what it was about me that attracted such observations with alarming regularity.

So, thanks to those random middle-aged men for making me think this was about me when it was about their chauvinistic attitudes, their penchant to control women, all along. It's so obvious now when women have spoken out about it in droves but at the time it was just another trivial annoyance dished out to females by men old enough to know better. In those days we were supposed to just put up with being objectified.

There are a variety of ways men can express disapproval about the fact that you are not smiling. "Cheer up. It might never happen" is just one of them. "You've got such a pretty face. Why don't you smile?", "You'd look much prettier if you smiled", "You need to learn how to smile" and "Smile, Sweetheart" are others.

I'd like to think that maybe this is an old-fashioned example of sexism that will die out with the dinosaurs who still think it's clever, witty or appropriate. Yet evidence suggests it's alive and well. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly been publically criticised (by men) for a lack of a smile. And, last year Serena Williams famously shut down a (male) journalist who asked why she wasn't smiling more.

Weirdly, a term was coined to describe the visage of women who don't go around smiling all day. By giving it a name ("Resting B*tch Face") it somehow legitimised men's unsolicited judgment of women's facial expressions. So, for anyone who still thinks it's a harmless activity, here are five reasons why men should stop telling women to smile:

1. It's sexist

Even if you're the sort of person who tells everyone - regardless of gender, age or status - how to arrange the muscles in their face, if you're a man directing this comment to a woman it is sexist. End of story. I can't imagine any man would even think of saying this to his older and more senior male work colleague. Most often used when a man perceives the target to be younger or of an inferior status to him, it is reserved primarily for women - and, for that reason alone, it has no place in civilised society.

2. It's objectifying

When you tell a woman to smile (unless you're a photographer commissioned to take a happy snap) you are treating her as if her purpose is to beautify the landscape for your enjoyment. That's clearly not true. Women are people, too, with their own needs, wants, agendas and feelings. They shouldn't be expected to have to shape themselves into some man's idea of a fantasy image just because he's too unevolved to understand this.

3. It's controlling

No one has the right to instruct a grown woman about the image she presents to the world. If she wants to smile, she will smile. If she doesn't, she won't. It's pretty simple, really. What makes any man think he can become involved in such personal choices?

4. Maybe she's sad

How do you know this woman isn't having the worst day of her life? Perhaps she's unwell, has just lost a job or a loved one. How dare some random man question the expression on her face.

5. Smiling can be misunderstood

In an astounding attempt to blame his victim, the disgraced Malaysian diplomat sentenced for indecently assaulting a Wellington woman claimed he followed her home "after she'd given him a 'signal' by smiling at him".

Of course, it's an extreme example but it points to a wider issue. If women in public are at constant risk of harassment and even assault, is it any wonder they're not going around wearing permanent smiles? Sometimes a Resting Bitch Face can be just an attempt to fend off unwanted attention. Smiling is the last thing a woman is likely to do when confronted by a sexist, controlling man intent on objectifying her.

- NZ Herald

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Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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