“What is your fucking problem?”
I knew when I decided to spend one day smiling at every person I made eye contact with that someone would curse me out. I did not, however, think that this would happen immediately. I also did not think that after being cursed out for grinning affably, I would then turn purple in the face, get teary, and apologize, shuffling off awkwardly in my entirely-too-puffy coat. But that’s exactly what happened.
Do you smile innately? Is it your default facial expression? If so: YOU FASCINATE ME YOU RARE AND SPLENDID CREATURE. This is not the case with my little mug. I don’t have a resting bitch face, nor do I actively scowl, but as I scuttle around town doing things like spending too much on cold brew coffee and trying not to post to Instagram so much, my face rests in a blank-to-sad pose. My lips naturally turn slightly down. Because I’m a girl, that’s not acceptable.
No but really.
Ask any of the number of people who have felt it was perfectly within their rights to say stuff to me like “It can’t be THAT bad” or “Show me that smile, baby girl!” Usually I just cave under the pressure and offer them a painful grin that doesn’t reach my eyes — Tyra would not be fooled. But what if instead of giving these strangers exactly what they demanded of me, I responded in kind, “Yeah, it IS that bad — I just found out I have to some of my moles removed because they are suspicious.” What if I smiled at the man who called me "baby girl," revealing a toothless, gummy maw more suited to the baby he imagined me to be?
Because the first option would invite violence and/or involve removing all of my teeth and hoping for the best, I decided to go another way with it. If everyone wanted me to smile all the time, why don’t I try smiling, see what that does? Maybe I’m instinctively bucking against orders for no actual reason other than some vague, unthought-out hostility toward the patriarchy.
Conversely, I could absolutely be right to police my facial expressions when out in the world. Either way, it was a science experiment, and science is the greatest, so I dug in.
So let’s try this, I resolved quietly: For one day, and one day only, I would smile at every single person I passed and made eye contact with on the street.
It was, well, not awful exactly, but totally exhausting. Not to be overly melodramatic but each time you lock eyes with another person and smile and they look away from you and keep going as if they haven’t see you, it’s a little bit like they’ve denied you your humanity? That said, because this is New York, everyone probably thought I was insane, about to hit them up for money, share with them the good news of our lord Cthulhu, or a terrible combination of all three.
The outright denials of humanity were absolutely not the worst part of this endeavor. The second person I locked eyes with, while walking to a lunch meeting, stopped in her tracks and asked how she knew me. Then I had to very quickly and awkwardly explain that no, no, we aren’t friends in any way, I was just, you know, being decent. She left this encounter visibly frightened.
Women in groups were the most hostile to my beaming, and that makes sense. I was basically a weakened gazelle, my smile must have suggested a desperate need to be liked, to be included, to not be eaten, my bones strewn about in every direction. For the most part, these women looked at each other and laughed at me. This was fine, because I made it through middle school and developed some coping mechanisms along the way.
It was harder when the group had a leader who decided they couldn’t let it go with looks of incredulity alone, “Are you kidding me right now?” You guys. I promise you. I wasn’t even smiling that hard. I am a shy person. It was like, a polite, business-y closed-lip grin at best.
Then there were the dudes. Oh, the dudes. Sure, my smiles directed their way elicited some sweet eye-flirting and return grins which put a little pep in my step. But less compelling was the man on the F train who asked me if I’d ever sucked anyone off on the train before. I did not answer him — because I am a woman of mystery. And also because I was mortified.
When I got off the train, returning home after running some errands, a man at Rite Aide greeted me with kissy noises and a whispered, “Where are you going, glossy lips?” Let the record show two things. Thing one, my lips were chapped and peeling due to a cold that had hit me half-way through the day like a ton of bricks.
Thing the second, an OKCupid dude had recently greeted me with the same moniker. Verily, my lips must secrete a luminous ooze of which I have been unaware and should probably have checked out when I go see my dermatologist. The smile on my face ruptured at this and I felt teary as I blasted past the guy to get cold medicine. I was tired and feverish. I blamed this forced visual communication of my happiness: Smiling had drained my life force.
With my drugs in hand, I began to trudge home. I stopped at a corner waiting for the light to change. A man, probably 10 years my senior, stopped beside me. He felt awkwardly close, so I didn’t quite move over, but more like shifted away from him keeping my eyes on the traffic.
“Cold.” He was talking to me. I was confused for a minute — did he mean the temperature or my health? Then I remembered that I was supposed to smile and I did in a manner that I’m sure was vaguely alarming.
“Yeah,” I said, being the sparkling wit that I am.
“This is nothing,” he continued, “where I am from — in Russia — it is much colder.”
I made a noncommittal noise, as is often my wont. The light changed and I tried to charge ahead and pull away giving him a firm nod but I’m short and he was tall and persistent.
“Do you smoke?” He asked. I shook my head.
“This is good, a woman should not smoke too much — unless she is drinking of course. Do you drink?”
I lied, “No,” I said abstemiously (I might add).
“This is nice to hear. You come with me sometime, to my mother’s house, in Sheepshead Bay — she cook for you!” In a flash, I saw myself, the awkward journey to this man’s mother’s house, me smiling and in a panic the entire time. What about my timid grin made for an open invitation to meet the folks?
In a way, I was less put off by the dude on the train who loudly tried to get me to perform fellatio upon him in front of a group of teenager Euro-tourists. A blow job in public is just a blow job in public, after all. Meeting someone’s mom? That’s personal.
My main takeaway from smiling for a day was that it’s a terrible idea if you’re a girl. If a man smiles at someone on the street in passing, he’s either a letch or trying to make it clear that he’s courteous and has no immediate plans to murder you. But if you’re a woman all it does it stamp "VULNERABLE AND FOOLISH” and your forehead and leave you running a fever and in desperate need of a drink.
I think there’s something to it, this idea that we can exist in a bubble and deny other people their right to exist — but I don’t think that means trading one scowling set of armor for another of wincing obeisance.