Smiling and Stuff

"Hey girl, it's okay to smile!" someone shouted at me as I walked down the steps to 24th Street Mission BART a few months ago.  My first reaction was: I know. What's THAT got to do with anything?

As I'm reaching towards my thirties, and with sexual abuse and assault in the news more and more, I'm aware increasingly every day that the world sees me and labels me “woman,” and that carries its own set of connotations, expectations, and yes, risks with it. And although this is not a story about my own experience of abuse or assault, it is a short and brief insight into the many ways that the female experience is not the same as the male experience. This can manifest in the form of micro-aggressions that women endure. And that even these small, fleeting things I am coming to recognize more and more as moments that I am unwilling to accept de facto anymore.

Women are expected to be beams of joy, light, and beauty in an often chaotic world. In this world, women are in many ways still subservient to men, and acting out, or breaking with order is unsettling. If a woman doesn't dress a certain way, overly please or defer to others, or take second seat in a meeting, then, she is bound to ruffle feathers. Expectations about what a woman is, what a woman should do, and assumptions about who is a woman, mean that people dictate everything women do, right down to giving directions about how to carry our faces a certain way--i.e. smile. [1]

I've been quite literally yelled at countless times by complete strangers who urge me to smile, or "cheer up" when the ends of my smile may be naturally flat, or even turned down. But every time this has happened to me, I have not been in distress. I have not been injured. I've just been going about my day. So what am I doing that makes someone feel so compelled that they have to shout at me? I find society's discomfort at a woman having a flat or downturned smile to be pretty unusual for two reasons.

First, what harm is my lack of a smile doing to you? I don't even notice if others around me that I don't know are smiling are not, because truthfully, I'm not looking that closely at their mouths.

Second, and more obviously, why should I be smiling when doing mundane things? If I am walking down the street, focused on where I am going, do I need to smile? What if I'm headed down a dirty staircase into a public transit station? Does that warrant a gesture of glee? I can be content and not show it.

In high school, we memorized the famed lyrics to the gospel "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." "I smile because I'm happy...I smile because I'm free." But I don't feel free when a person I don't know tells me how to act, even if it is just a simple thing, like grinning. So I don't smile. And I shouldn't have to.

Today I saw a woman crying as a man shouted and yelled at her. She held her arms up, pressed up against his biceps, keeping him at bay as she sobbed for him to calm down. Another onlooker and I were drawn in, and we asked her was she alright? Did she need help? The man, who we found out later was her boyfriend, stormed off towards the parking lot, and the woman sunk into a dirty street corner and wept. She made herself small but he made himself big as he stomped around the street and paced in the distance. As I watched the scene unfold, noting the stark difference in male v. female behavior, I couldn’t help but think, even in our moments of weakness, we women feel embarrassed by our sadness. But it’s not our shame to feel. It was the boyfriend that should have been red in the face. He should have been the one apologizing for his behavior. Not this woman, crying in the darkness while two strangers comforted her. Society doesn’t need her to hide her pain. Society needs to recognize it.

As a future lawyer, I feel compelled to end stories like this sometimes with an action item. A next step. But I think awareness is the first step here. Recognition that these small moments shape a lot of other moments and expectations. And if we can tear them away and bring attention to the constraints forced upon the female experience, we can liberate ourselves, or better yet, tell men to stop pushing us down. We can get the world off our back, and away from our smiles.

And of course, reach out for help, and be ready to give help, too. We don’t and shouldn’t have to take any unwanted behavior as a given. And when something looks wrong, it probably is. So look out for your peers, and look out for yourself. And remember you don’t have to smile if you are not happy. There’s no reason to fake it any longer.

[1] Rosa Inocencio Smith, "What It's Like When a Stranger Tells You to Smile,” October 7, 2016,


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