As a woman, I am told to smile a lot by men. When I was a mid-twenty-something living in New York City, I was probably told to smile 3-5 times a week. Now that I am the big 3-0, and living in a much smaller town in New Jersey, it’s less of an issue. But I’d still say it happens to me about once a month or so. For most of my life, I would respond to these requests by simply ignoring them, or offering a rueful grimace in return that screamed, “ISN’T THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?!”
I distinctly remember one instance, back in 2013, a few weeks after my mother died. I was walking through the city rocking my TBF (thinking bitch face) with my headphones on, working through some things in my mind; namely, how the hell am I going to get through this?!
“Smile, sweetheart!” A man standing on the corner barked at me, loud enough to hear through my over-ear headphones. I was incensed. How dare he tell me to smile when I was feeling such pain? Who did he think he was? I’m a human being, not a doll! I thought. Frustrated, I ignored him. But his words burned me for blocks. Why hadn’t I said something? Why was I letting him ruin my walk, which was already pretty dang sad in the first place? It was that night that I had a stroke of genius and decided to make a change. I would no longer ignore men telling me to smile, and I would certainly no longer fake it so they’d leave me alone. No, from now on they were going to feel the full force of my reality, whether they liked it or not.
The next day, when a man told me to smile, I fired back: “MY MOTHER JUST DIED!” The way he responded, apologizing and stuttering and stumbling over his words, you would have thought he was trying to justify starting a rescue puppy fighting ring. It was almost as though he was empathizing with me, and realizing for the first time that the women he yelled at on the streets might be actual humans and have — gasp — their own lives and legitimate reasons for not walking through life smiling blissfully. He obviously felt badly. And I was glad. I felt completely satisfied knowing that this experience might have made him think twice the next time he planned on telling a woman to smile. I’ve been responding this way ever since, and I’ve gotta tell you that my strategy has a 100% success rate; success being an apology, or at least a slink-away. It’s been two and a half years since my mother died, so at this point I’m admittedly stretching the truth a bit by saying it just happened, but I’m totally fine with that. Besides, sometimes it really does feel like just yesterday.
Now, you might be thinking, “But Chelsea, aren’t these men just trying to be nice and cheer you up?! Telling someone to smile isn’t exactly a crime against humanity!”
To that I would say this: Let’s set aside for a moment how sexist it is to tell women to smile, as though we are on earth merely for your adornment and entertainment. Ok ready for the truth? It’s just plain misguided and rude to tell anyone to smile (although, to that point, I’m still waiting to hear all of the stories of this happening to men). You are not the arbiter of someone else’s feelings and/or facial expressions. It would be grand if we all walked around in a cloud of happiness and positivity 24/7, but that’s simply not reality. We all have bad days, traumas, tragedies, illnesses, depression, arguments with loved ones, etc. We all have moments when we’re not “on.” We need to stop telling people to cheer up: feeling bad is natural, it’s healthy and it’s an important part of processing our experiences. Feeling bad is paramount to the human experience. We are not drones — we are messy, volatile and complex.
So, even if someone is sad, and you want to cheer them up, I can guarantee you that telling them to smile will not accomplish that end. In reality, it will likely make the other person feel worse. It’s extremely frustrating to be told what to feel and do. Nobody is going to be like, “oh, just smile?! You know, I never even considered that. You are a GENIUS of happiness and positivity. Have you thought about writing a self-help book? It’s a huge industry and I bet you could make millions! You could even do a speaking tour and just be like ‘here’s a novel idea: smile!’ and drop the mic. People would pay good money for that.” (Come to think of it… that might not be a bad way to respond. I’m going to file that in my arsenal in case saying that mom died ever gets old.)
Ladies, if you’re frustrated with men telling you to smile, and not sure how to handle it, I encourage you to try some form of this in your own lives. Of course, I’ll concede that it’s not your responsibility to respond to the orders of men, or to teach them why demanding that women smile is gross. But, if you want to really stick it to the smile-pushers, and teach them a valuable lesson: tell ’em why you’re upset!
“I just got my period and my insides feel like they’re about to explode, thanks.”
“I just broke off my engagement!”
“I just found out my best friend has cancer.”
You can keep it real with what you’re upset about in the moment, or pull from a particularly painful experience in your past. The major goal is to force the dude to examine his need to tell you, a human being with a complicated life and varying moods, to smile. Force him to see your humanity. I promise the results are satisfying and often hilarious.
How do you deal with someone telling you to smile?! Sound off in the comments!