I Said No When A Man Asked Me To Smile, So He Physically Made Me

Ever since I was about 25, I don't smile on command for men unless they're taking my photo.
Publish date:
September 16, 2015
sexism, street harassment, smiling

Smiling has always been a weird thing for me. Or maybe what I mean is, it's not weird so much for me as the people around me because, like most women I know, I am being told to smile all the time—mostly by men.

This isn't a new thought, and I've certainly had been sent links to the incredible Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's "Stop Telling Women To Smile" more times than I can count. What is new is that the other day, I declined a man's request to smile, so he got up, grabbed my face and physically tried to make me.

Let's get one thing straight right away: I do smile. I smile a lot. I like to joke around and laugh with my friends. I smile at my neighbors in the elevator, I smile to myself at memories and good weather, I smiled at the mailman who told me "good morning" today.

I'm not peppy, and I'm admittedly a bit of a curmudgeon at times, but I definitely smile at people and things when I am happy or relaxed. What I don't do is smile at all times like a PanAm flight attendant or constantly show my teeth like animal about to attack, and I think that's true of most people.

And ever since I was about 25, I don't smile on command for men unless they're taking my photo.

So, one night, a few weeks ago, I was invited by some dear friends to a birthday party in the lobby of a hotel. It had been a pleasant, but long, day of hanging out, and I’d had many animated conversations about all sorts of things.

At one point, my boyfriend excused himself to go to the restroom. We had been talking and everyone else was engaged in other conversations at the moment, so I let myself relax and slump into my seat.

It was then that I saw this guy out of the corner of my eye. He was a few seats away and gesturing to me. I turned to him and he made a gesture suggesting that I should smile. I know, I know, it could have been easily resolved by me flashing a toothy grin. But I'd had a few drinks and my resolve was strong. So I said "No."

A few people looked at me like I was being weird, so instead of launching into some diatribe about why I wouldn’t smile, I just said it felt unnatural for me to smile when I wasn't laughing or engaging other people.

I even felt myself backpedaling, insinuating something was wrong with me, with my face. Why? I don't know. I thought I was past this, but apparently not. I definitely didn’t want to explain the history of me vs. smiling to a friend of a friend that I had never met before.

So I laughed my way through my weak explanation for my "no," and that could have been the end of it, I suppose. He could have decided I was a dour weirdo—and I'm sure he wouldn't have been the first guy to decide that—and allowed me to "brood" at the opposite end of the table. I was certainly having a good night without his approval.

But instead, he said, "Try this." And he stood up, walked around the back of the couch, grabbed my face from behind and pulled my cheeks up into a smile.

This should have been a breaking point for me. I should have said, "What makes you think you can put your hands on my face and fashion it in the expression you want, huh?"

But instead, I just started laughing, like a hyena. Instead of self-preservation or resolve, I made the decision that not causing a scene was priority number one. I heard him say, "That wasn't so hard, was it?" or something to that effect, and then he sat back down.

And I just kept laughing, even as I felt my pulse quicken and rage bubble up inside of me.

With one weird interaction at a friend's birthday party, I was felt like I was 19 years old again, self-conscious and staring at myself in the mirror trying to figure out what was wrong with my face.

When I was a kid, I remember teachers saying that it takes more muscles to frown than to smile. I would always think to myself that it takes even fewer muscles to make no expression at all, which seemed like the most natural thing to do unless you were happy or sad.

The requests from men to smile started, as they do for most women I’ve spoken with about the subject, once I was about 12 or so. They always took me by surprise. I would be walking my dog, focusing on a book, or just walking down the street and a man would say, "Smile!"

I would force a grin, and it would make me feel uncomfortable to do so, but it seemed like the easiest thing to do. I know that studies claim that smiling more makes you happier, but they also show that being micromanaged in the workplace makes employees miserable, and I regard people telling you want to do with your face when you're minding your own business as the worst kind of micromanaging. Nothing feels good about a forced smile.

When I was 15, I worked at the public library in the small Michigan town where I grew up, shelving books. It's a pretty solitary activity, but I was fired after about a year because I "seemed sad."

Once I got to college, I was working in restaurants. I would be stopped in the middle of a task—loading a tray full of sodas, perhaps. "You're forgetting the most important part of your uniform."

I would panic, thinking I was missing my bowtie or wearing the wrong shoes.

"Your smile," my male manager would say. Then I would get to a table and right in the middle of saying hello, male customers would bark, "Smile!" at me.

I would frequently try to walk around smiling pleasantly just to avoid being told to smile, hoping that I would never be caught off guard while studying a receipt or typing an order into the computer.

It would happen, though, even when I was smiling. I began to think something was wrong with my face. Maybe when I thought I was smiling, I really wasn’t smiling enough.

When I started working in bars instead of restaurants it got worse. The demands were constant. Bent over a keg? SMILE. Trying to pour a perfect pint? HEY, SMILE.

People—again, mostly men—would lean over the bar and scream that in my face all the time, as if any moment in which I wasn't smiling was personally offensive to them. As if they couldn't enjoy their drinks or their time with friends if I wasn't grinning benignly at all time when within their line of sight.

I'm sure they would have climbed over the stall of the ladies' room and shouted, "SMILE!" at me while I was peeing if they could have. Whenever I complained about this, people would send me that "resting bitch face" video, as if saying: “Oh, it’s not one’s fault really. Your face is just that of a bitch’s.” OK. Thanks.

For some men, just telling me to smile wasn't enough. They would also complain to my managers about my lack of smiling. But it wasn't really the smiling, at its root.

I once got a complaint from a group of eight men, one of whom kept putting his hand on the small of my back when ordering. I got their orders right and quickly, but I wasn't receptive to their flirting, so they complained about me. They said I wasn’t friendly, and that I never smiled at them.

This simply wasn’t true. It was at this point that I began to think that maybe smiling, for them, wasn't about me being happy, but being subservient. If I hadn’t moved out of that guy’s reach, and if I’d had a smile plastered on my face throughout their flirting, I bet they would have found me to be great.

And I noticed one other thing, for sure: 99 percent of the people telling me to smile at work and on the street were men.

At another bar I tended, I asked one of the men who told me to smile, “Did you tell the other bartender to smile?" The other bartender was, of course, a man. The customer said, "No, I'm not gay."

There you go. If that doesn't tell you what this whole "smiling" business is really about, nothing will.

I never did stand up for myself the night of my friend's birthday party. I just buried my apparently depressing face in a cocktail and then let loose in a bar in West Hollywood later that evening. It was still a good night. But the feeling that I should have said something lingers.

No one's told me to smile since then, for what it's worth. But the next time someone does, and I can tell they have no real interest in my well-being, I owe it to myself to not be their puppet and not feel like shit about my totally acceptable face. My face is OK. I do smile, when I want to -- but only at people who treat me like an equal.