I Think We Should Have a Collective Response To Strangers Who Tell Us To Smile

Every three seconds a woman is told to "fix" her face by a strange man who somehow knows her life. I totally made that up but you believed it because it's life.
Publish date:
September 14, 2012
shut up, annoyed, stranger danger, smile more

Recently, two men I don't know from a crack in the sidewalk really fucking pissed me off.

Yesterday I had to haul an ungodly amount of laundry to the dry cleaners about five blocks up the hill from my apartment. The overflow of dirty dress shirts and sweaty silk dresses had gotten so bad I was forced to stuff everything in my old-lady grocery shopping cart instead of the eco-friendly-because-I-reuse-it-so-much Ikea bag from like four years ago. Yes, I looked homeless.

I knew walking past the bus stop would be problematic as it's the equivalent of a construction site. I got maybe three cart wheels away when a man yelled out how beautiful my hair was. I smiled, nodded, said "Thank you" and keep on pushing. But, of course, it didn't end there.

"Do you fix it yourself?" I doubted the seriousness of this question, since it was coming from a balding man with paint-splattered jeans. I just ignored it and continued on my way. I'd already been polite enough. More polite than I had to be, since being polite isn't the law. He kept yelling though, even when I crossed the street and I tuned him out like so much of the white noise in the urban jungle -- cars honking, people cursing, etc.

"Miss? Miss! MISS!! Do you speak English?"

At this point, he was right behind me waving a wayward dress shirt in my direction. Apparently, in my haste to mind my business, one of my boyfriend's shirts got lost to the cause. The man was pissed I didn't sit and talk with him long enough to figure that out.

"I mean, these are your clothes not mine. What do I care?"

I thanked him again, grabbed the button-down from his fist and yanked my cart full of laundry the rest of the way. Did he deserve a "thank you"? I don't know. Perhaps. But I was still annoyed.

The next morning, as I performed my daily routine of scrolling through tweets before taking my dog Miles for a walk, I came across something almost eerily prescient. It was a snippet of an interview with author Junot Diaz and NPR: "I grew up in a world...where largely I wasn't really encouraged to imagine women as fully human."

I contemplated the power of that quote while out on the street with Miles. Diaz is taking responsibility in a way for his own actions, even though he says they are involuntary. Just as I've been conditioned to be polite to men even as they overreach, men have been taught to ignore my discomfort because my value in our interaction is inherently less than.

And wouldn't you know, while thinking thoughts in my own head, my sacred space, and therefore not being truly aware of the people around me, another micro-sexist incident walked right into my line of sight.

A large man who looked to be sane and in his mid-40s walked a fluffy white dog down the street Miles and I were about to cross. Still contemplating the meaning of Diaz's quote and how men need to reevaluate their cloudy perceptions of privacy when it comes to women, I glanced at this dude's dog, smiled and kept on contemplating. I had a running dialogue going in my head that I didn't want to disrupt.

"Hey. Hey! HEY!" he called from the street. Thinking there was some emergency happening in the millisecond it took for our paths to cross, I turned ever so slightly.

"If I'm not afraid to speak, then why are you?"

Are you fucking kidding me? Could this really be happening? That as I was mulling over the imbalance between men and women in the public square, some strange man who I have never seen before demands that I speak to him only because he would like to speak to me?

Of course I was so mad that I smiled. "Oh," I said through gritted teeth. "Hello." Because that's exactly what he wanted, I guess. To get an insincere greeting from a woman he doesn't know only because he could.

Fuming, when I got home I immediately Googled the rest of Diaz's quote.

"I was in fact pretty much -- by the larger culture, by the local culture, by people around me, by people on TV -- encouraged to imagine women as something slightly inferior to men. And so I think that a lot of guys, part of our journey is wrestling with, coming to face, our limited imagination and growing in a way that allows us not only to imagine women as fully human, but to imagine the things that we do to women -- that we often do blithely, without thinking, we just sort of shrug off -- as actually deeply troubling and as hurting another human being."

None of the microaggressions that I experienced in the last two days were life threatening, not in a physical sense anyway. I wasn't touched, but I still felt threatened and reverted back to the safe baseline of feminine politeness when all I wanted to say was, "Mind your fucking business," or, "I'm not afraid of talking to you, I simple don't want to," -- or silence.

I'm ready to wrestle with my own limitations and to start re-imagining my part in this screwed-up social hierarchy. First, I'm gonna figure out a stock answer, a go-to, for when I don't want to speak or otherwise engage with men. I'm gonna recite it like a mantra until it's written on my bones. I'm thinking something assertive and lady-cop sounding like, "Your attention is unwanted. Stand down. Now." But I'd rather it rhyme because I'm ridiculous.

What do you say to men who try to make you play by their rules?