I’m in line at the grocery store, not really thinking about anything in particular other than “Hey ho, in line at the grocery store.” As one does.
Watching the conveyor slowly bring my pint of butter pecan that much closer to the scanner while the person in line in front of me rummages through her purse, shocked that she is expected to provide money in exchange for groceries.
Like Jessica, who wrote about this topic previously, I have a bit of a resting bitchface. It’s just what my face does. Right now, it’s even worse because I’ve been clenching my jaw a lot, presumably in reaction to something in my current pharmacopoeia. The result is that my normally turned-down lips look sort of tense. I guess if you didn’t know me, you might think I was pissed at you or something.
I don’t spent a lot of time thinking about my face or, honestly, giving a flying fig about whether it meets the aesthetic needs of the people around me. I like to keep my face clean and warmly bathed in a nice layer of SPF 15 moisturizer, but that’s really about it.
It’s a face, you know? It has useful things in it like my eyes, nose, and mouth. Beyond that, eh.
So there I am in line at the grocery store, minding my own business in a way that very much signals I’d like to be left to myself, when someone else intrudes into my space.
At the best of times, I don’t really appreciate random strangers approaching me in public, unless it’s to say something like “Pardon me, but you appear to be on fire” or “You may want to wait to cross the street, since there is currently a rabid dog in the middle of it.” Other than that, I don’t want people to bother me.
And most of the time, I must give off a pretty good “Really, don’t mess with me” vibe. People say I look intimidating, although I don’t really get that, but I guess they must be right. Because, most of the time, strangers leave me alone.
“You’d be so much prettier if you smiled,” the person in line behind me said.
“Pardon me?” I said, drawing upon years of practice over my well-worn copy of "Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior."
“You look so...angry.”
Now, I live in hippieville. Complete strangers really do feel like it’s totally appropriate to try to sell you vitamins/chakra crystals/religion in the line at the grocery store, and this is not the first weird encounter I’ve had at Harvest Market.
But this conversation in particular is one that always makes me particularly irked. The myriad incarnations of the “Smile, baby” guy (and it’s almost always a guy) have been known to move me to actual violence on occasion. The implication here is that I have an obligation to “look pretty” for smile baby guy. That my face is somehow objectionable just for being in public and not smiling.
There are lots of reasons for a person to not be smiling. That person might have facial nerve damage! Or TMJ! Or just not really be thinking about anything specific! Or be, like, really upset about something but still in need of a pack of toilet paper, because, guess what, even when your beloved partner is dying at home on a morphine drip, you still need toilet paper.
And you know what? Some person trying to buy groceries or mail something at the post office or whatever doesn’t need a lecture from the smile baby guy. Going out in public to conduct tasks of daily living, or socialize, or just get out of the house for a bit does not actually provide other people with a license to comment on your facial expression.
Because it’s totally not cool to make random criticisms about the appearance of someone you don’t know just because you personally don’t like that person’s face/skirt/taste in hats and that person happens to be in the same line at the drugstore. Or wherever. Bodies have a right to be in public doing whatever they need to get done, without comment.
The gendered divides here are so obvious, it’s almost painful. It’s always smile baby guy talking to a woman or someone he reads as a woman. This is about the fact that ladies need to look pretty, and furthermore, that ladies need to be in good moods all the time. Telling people to smile is about telling them that you think they’re in an unacceptable mood, which is, like, beyond inappropriate.
It’s yet another reminder of the ways in which women are expected to perform for the public, to put up a “good face” at all times or face the consequences.
Smile baby guy thinks he’s sergeant of the mood police, and it’s his job to keep things ship-shape and Bristol fashion. Well, guess what, smile baby guy.
I want to say that I told the guy at the grocery store that my mood was none of his business, and also that my face and whatever it might or might not be doing was not his business either. I wish I could tell you I “accidentally” spilled a carton of milk on him. Or that I said “You know, I’m not really interested in whether people view me as ‘pretty’ or not, and thus I don’t really need your opinion on my appearance.”
But instead, I just turned away and faced the checker, because my turn had finally come.
“Hi, Kip,” I said. “How are you doing?”
“Great,” he said.
Kip was smiling, and I was too, but not because we were obeying any kind of social contract; it’s because we like each other and were genuinely happy to see each other.
You can’t fake an authentic smile, and you shouldn’t be forced to.