“Smile.” The request elicits two very dichotomous reactions from me: a pavlovian need to smile and a simultaneous “F*** You!”
I remember at sixteen-years-old, being accosted by a drunk man as I waited for the city bus. When I wouldn’t smile for his amusement or engage with him in conversation, he accused me of hating Native Americans. The racist accusation coupled with the fear for my safety kept me from formulating a clever comeback. I responded, “I don’t know you!” and was relieved when I saw the approaching bus. I hurried away from the drunk stranger who felt he was owed my smile.
“Smile, honey!” I situate my daughter, adorned in a yellow dress of her own choosing, in front of the yellow flowers in our yard. She automatically poses, smiling widely when she sees me pull out my phone. She’s a ham who immediately must look at the picture I took. She is four-years-old and already wants photo approval.
When she was an infant, that first smile was killer. My husband and I were slayed by the cuteness, and it became our mission to get as many smiles out of her as possible. The first ones are all genuine. Kids don’t know how to fake a smile for someone else yet. Their smiles are just for themselves. But as parents, we take unfettered joy in them.
“Smile.” The clean-cut businessman noticed me walking to class and apparently, I looked too serious for his liking. The corners of my mouth inched towards a smile, while I felt sick to my stomach. This guy was probably a husband, maybe even a father. I was a twenty-year-old college student who looked younger than my age, complete with ponytail and backpack. His request did not seem like an innocent plea for me to cheer up. It may not have been a lewd catcall, but there was something behind the word that he wouldn’t want anyone to know.
The photographers situated my daughter on Santa’s lap, their voices high-pitched and child-friendly. “Look over here, sweetheart! Smile!” My daughter is excited to see Santa and even more excited to get her picture taken. I set aside my own anxiety about allowing her to sit on the lap of some strange man. She willingly smiles towards the photographer and the photo ends up being mantle-worthy.
Many years ago, I would walk to the movie theater that I worked at that summer. I’d be dressed in my unflattering uniform, instantly getting sweaty in the July Boston heat. I'd make it to my subway stop with only a few unsolicited comments or requests for smiles from strange men. That evening, I would make the long walk home after the last movie had ended and the subway had stopped running. I would hold my cell phone in one hand, ready to call 911 as needed or fake a phone call if I got too much unwanted attention. My keys were wrapped securely between the knuckles of my other hand like every woman has learned to do from too early an age.
I was probably twelve when I started to understand that, depending on the person asking, the request for a smile was not innocent. This was someone encroaching on my personal boundaries. This was a subtle demand for control, often from a stranger. This was the need for me to please them, no matter if I even knew them or not. Why did my unsmiling face offend them so much? Why was it my job to make them feel better?
Now that I’m a mother, I find myself thinking more and more about the requests made upon my daughter, or the comments made about her. She’s a beautiful and independent girl. When she’s not on an emotional rollercoaster and throwing a tantrum, frequently for reasons I can barely comprehend, she’s often happily smiling. She’s affectionate and loud. She’s easily excitable and loves to talk to new people.
I don’t want to quell this spirit. But I want to protect her from the tricky people in life. I want to protect her even from the well-meaning folks. It’s not her job to please other people by smiling. She doesn’t owe them that; not as a child, as a teenager, or as a grown woman.
Often, we women have to decide between acquiescing for our personal safety or responding honestly and angrily. My fight or flight instinct usually leans toward fight, especially when I was younger. But do I want to get into a fight every time I go jogging or grocery shopping? Not really. More importantly, is it worth my life? It’s a horrible thing, to have to worry that this time, maybe that creep asking me to smile might try to do something much more dangerous if I don’t give in. I don’t want this reality for my daughter.
Naysayers will say this is no big deal, that this doesn’t constitute harassment. But unless you have been made to feel small, unsafe, or rude for simply living your life without pasting a people-pleasing fake smile upon your face, you do not know. It doesn’t matter the intention of the asker. Even the most talented and accomplished women continue to face this. Come to think of it, when is the last time a man was asked to smile by a strange woman? Men are neither expected to smile, nor asked to.
I’m going to work on refraining from asking my daughter to smile, even when taking adorable pictures with her. I’m going to stand up for her when other people make the request, no matter how well-meaning. I’m going to explain to her that not all people are friends and that you are allowed your own personal boundaries. No one is owed a smile (much less your body).
I’m going to start right now. Please, do not ask my daughter to smile.