It’s bad enough men do this to us, I thought, but now we’re doing it to each other?
There I was, sitting alone in a New Orleans jazz bar, sipping an Olivia Pope-sized glass of wine. I was enjoying the live music, the atmosphere, and the pleasure of my own company, when a stranger approached me and said the following words, a variation of which all women I know have heard: “You have such a pretty smile—you should smile more!”
No woman is immune to this particular form of everyday sexism. After Hillary Clinton swept four Midwestern states back in March, it wasn’t her victory but her face (and her voice) that some men on Twitter wanted to talk about—she won, so why wasn’t she smiling?
Not even Harriet Tubman, who died 103 year ago, is safe. When the Treasury Secretary announced that the abolitionist hero would replace Jackson as the face of the $20 bill, smile enthusiasts took to social media to lament her serious disposition, forgetting, momentarily I’m sure, that none of the men featured on U.S. money is exactly giddy with joy either. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and led others to freedom through the Underground Railroad, but none of that counts unless she did it with a smile on her face, apparently.
The culprit in these often told scenarios is a man—one who somehow thinks he’s being generous or helpful. He has managed to separate his seemingly innocuous comment from centuries of oppression, in which women have been forced to follow the whims and decisions of men by the rules of law, society, and marriage. He is allowed to comment on your face because he’s a man, goddamnit; he has given you a compliment (nice smile) and an order (smile more). You should heed it and be grateful.
But the person who approached me in a New Orleans bar, who felt the need to tell a stranger how to arrange her face, was not an overly confident man. She was a woman.
So shocked was I that a woman had told me to smile that I couldn’t think of a single appropriate retort. If she had been a man, I could have taken the Broad City route and put my middle fingers at the corners of my mouth as I gave a fake smile. I could have invented a fake tragedy to make him feel bad (my dog just died, sir, so what do I have to smile about?). I could have told him receiving a smile from me is in no way something he is entitled to. But I had no idea how to respond to a woman, so I stone-facedly mumbled, “OK,” and went back to smiling at nothing and no one while returning my attention to my wine and the live band.
For me, it is somehow even more disheartening when women make sexist comments. I, perhaps unfairly, hold women to a higher standard, assuming that all of us, no matter our political affiliation, our religion, or any other factor that often divides us, should know better. Most of us have been on the receiving end of unwanted attention. Surely at some point during this woman’s life, a man had shared his unwelcome opinion about the size of her body or the sound of her voice. It’s bad enough men do this to us, I thought, but now we’re doing it to each other?
Internalized misogyny is real and usually manifests itself in much more destructive ways than telling other women to smile. A female friend once told me she prefers to work for and with men because “they’re so much less catty than women.” There are women who think we should aspire to be wives and mothers above all else, and those who argue that it’s solely our responsibility not to get raped or assaulted (remember Princeton Mom?). There are women who enthusiastically support Donald Trump, despite the horrific rhetoric he’s used about women both in public and in private. These examples certainly don’t reflect the majority of women, but to some degree we all participate in the patriarchy, even as many of us are working to dismantle it.
I don’t know anything about the woman who told me to smile. For all I know she meant well and genuinely thought her comment was helpful, or she could have been a raging misogynist hell-bent on transforming women into the people she thinks men want us to be. I think she (wrongly) assumed I was sad to be out and alone, and that her advice would be noted and appreciated. I’ll never know who she is or exactly what she thought she was accomplishing, but I do wish I had used the opportunity to tell her that her comment, rather than making me feel pretty, made me feel unwillingly exposed.
To that woman and to all others telling women to smile, commenting on our faces, voices, hair, skin, clothes, or makeup, or anything else they think would somehow improve us, hear me now: Your opinion is unsolicited and your advice is unwelcome, no matter your intention. If I am not smiling, it is because I don’t want to. If I am smiling, it is a reflection of my own happiness in a given moment, not because you asked me to.
You do not need to tell me I have a pretty smile. I know what my smile looks like. I reserve it for moments in which I want to smile, not the times when I’m bullied by others who demand to see a happy face. As a woman telling another woman to smile, you are actively promoting sexist expectations. You are saying that if I am in public, I should only feel happy or joyous, never angry or sad—and if I am angry or sad, I should smile through it because it is my responsibility to make strangers like you feel comfortable. Sometimes I have no expression on my face at all because I, like all people, sometimes get lost in my own thoughts, which are oftentimes neither positive nor negative. I, like you, am a complete person with a wide range of emotions, and that means that sometimes I smile, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I just want to be left alone.
As a woman, I would have hoped that you’d know better, so allow me to help you: Women do not owe anyone anything. Next time, think before you give unsolicited advice to a stranger. And please, please, just stop telling women to smile.
Lindsee Gregory is a New York-based feminist, reproductive rights advocate, and clinic escort. She loves to explore new and old places and is never found without a book. You can find her on Twitter @lindseegregory.