Something happened to me yesterday. I tried to brush it off, but as I was going to bed last night it started to irk me again. I woke up, had a shower and still, right in the midst of shampooing my hair the annoyance came back. I could not shake it.
Here it is, plain and simple: I was coming out of a work meeting in downtown Montreal yesterday, in great spirits, things had gone well and I was feeling good. I was walking past the Bell Centre (home of the Montreal Canadians, go habs!) when I saw a man standing around asking people walking by if they wanted to buy tickets for the hockey game later that night. I ignored him (as I do to most people trying to sell things to me on the street) and walked on, in a very happy mood. Then it happened.
He called out to me, “You could smile once in a while you know!”
I looked back at him, no change in my face, continuing with the blank stare that I usually reserve for walking in public, and I see him shaking his head back and forth at me like I was a 4 year old child who had stolen a cookie before dinner.
Smile once in a while.
Once in a while? This was the first time ever in my life I was walking past the Bell Centre at 2pm on a weekday. I had never seen this man before in my life. Why would anyone say this to another stranger? As the day went on and I started thinking about it more, the reasons why this was unacceptable become clear to me, let me explain why it is sexist and unacceptable to ask a woman to smile in public:
The Double Standard:
I wondered how many times any one of those business men walking past the Bell Centre all day long are ever stopped and told to “smile once in a while”? I asked my friend that night, who works in downtown Montreal if anyone had ever stopped him and told him to smile. He laughed outright.
“No. Not ever in my life.”
He is 34.
As a man, it is usually taken for granted the ability to be able to walk down the street, unmolested, attending to your every day business. As a woman it is never a guarantee.
Just like every other man around me, moving from place to place attending to their business, as a woman in a just society I expect the same respect. I expect that same ability to tend to my day to day errands without being told by a man in the street that I should put on a certain facial expression to please him.
It is an Invasion:
Just as you would never expect any mentally and socially sane person to ever approach you in public and comment on your clothes, height, weight or general appearance, so it is socially unacceptable to ask another human being to put on a certain facial expression for you.
It is rude, it is socially awkward, it is an invasion.
I am a woman. I am not a clown. I am not in the entertainment industry. Your particular feelings about my facial expressions are as relevant to me as your opinion on my fashion sense and as any decent human being knows, living in a major metropolitan city, you keep your opinions to yourself.
This term gets used a lot in the feminist community, especially in regards to abortion. Basically put it means that any individual person has control over their own body in respect to who or what uses it, for any purpose.
I think the term applies just as aptly here.
In a world where, in certain instances, women are literally paid to stand around and look happy, (I am thinking in particular of smiling woman at car shows, standing around in their bikinis or promotion girls hired to draw men in to the club) as a woman walking down the street who did not sign up for it, nor is getting paid for it, I have a right to use my body and my facial expressions how I choose in the public arena.
To ask a woman to smile in public is making an assumption that my place in public is in some way, shape or form, meant to please you (a man). A complete stranger at that.
It is not.
Moreover it strips me of my personal autonomy, literally placing me as other. A thing. A thing meant to please or conform but never to disrupt. It places no significance on me as a human being, nor does it place any consideration on what kind of day I have had, what I am going through in my life or my right to have feelings as an individual.
So there you have it. Telling a woman to smile in public is sexist and disruptive. As a woman, as any human being, I have the right to move through the world with the weight of my thoughts and emotions. I can smile, cry, ponder, or look distracted. I can stare blankly or I can look at the ground. In any case though, it is never, ever right, nor socially acceptable to dictate to me how or when I should wear a certain facial expression on my face especially when it is in the context of pleasing you.