I don’t smile enough according to people with zero relevance whose opinions I didn’t ask for. I’m told this regularly- so much that it makes me want to scowl more and smile less just to spite some stranger who oddly thinks they can tell me what to do and I will happily oblige.
When I walk through the CTA tunnel to transfer from Red Line to Blue some dude who is at least five years my junior tells me to “Smile, Sweetie.” If I’m the lone lady to not order a drink when I’m out with friends, the waiter says “Come on, girl, loosen up.” When I question my co-worker about why he set the coffee lids up on the far counter instead of the designated coffee station he laughs and tells me “Why so serious all the time?”
I’ve never quite been able to understand what it is that makes these individuals think it’s okay to verbally analyze my actions or tell me what to do. And they’re not just individuals, they’re men. Because when would a fellow female ever tell me to give them a smile? They wouldn’t. Because I can guess that at some point in their life they too have been given that same unwanted, unwarranted criticism of doing exactly what every poster in every Kindergarten classroom taught us to do: Be yourself.
I am confident when I estimate that most females can relate to being punished for being themselves. (What a shame, huh?) But it’s a tricky thing to identify, and even more difficult to prove. You see, the punishment doesn’t come in the form of direct bullying. I admit, no one is shoving their thumbs up the corners of my lips, screaming spitballs and insults in my face while they force my expression into a smile. It’s worse than that. The punishment comes disguised, costumed with a wink and a toothy grin and a patronizing, flirtatious undertone that suggests my failure to live up to society’s expectations of me as a female.
This is a common form of mockery women frequently face. It is a catcall of condescending energy that only motivates us to fight the smiley, polite, giggly girl stereotype even harder- really just as a ‘fuck you’ to the imperious male. And then we become part of the issue- feeling ashamed to display stereotypical feminine behavior when- back to Kindergarten here- that behavior might be part of who we are!
What else did Kindergarten teach me? To treat others the way I want to be treated. To not judge anyone without living a day in their shoes. To accept people for who they are. Basic rules of humanity right?
So I want to pose the seemingly-obliviously ridiculous question that I can’t believe even needs to be addressed: Are unsmiling women not included in this rule? The contemplative, serious female is indeed still a member of humanity, yes?
And aside from being harassed for displaying behaviors that differ from the norm, possibly implying coldness, withholding, or symptoms of depression, there’s another little universally-known rule that comes to mind that seems to have been forgotten: mind your own goddamn business!
Or so I learned in Kindergarten: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Even if I truly was the loathing, depressed, puppy-hating, cold-hearted robot I apparently appear to be, I still don’t think another person is justified in telling me to change. In reference to my elementary school yearbook, Kelly R. told me that I rocked and that I should never change. I’m pretty sure I only ever had music class with Kelly R. and that our only exchange was when she accidentally hit me over the head with a xylophone mallet, but nonetheless, I always followed Kelly’s sage advice.
The other day as I crossed the street, a middle-aged man rolled down his window to tell me “You look good, Honey. Where’s that smile?” I thought about ignoring him, I considered shooting him the finger, but I instead let my eyes go wide, my nostrils flare wildly, and my mouth open into the kind of unnatural, overly happy smile you’d later have nightmares about. The man frowned and drove off, unsatisfied with my beauty.
It was a small effort to be neither- neither the smiling princess men want me to be, nor the serious brood they love to mock. I was myself. And for that reason, it felt like a win.
Emily is a proud graduate of Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Film and a double minor in Dance and Fiction Writing. She works as an intern for the Catharsis Productions Marketing Department.