Smile Sweetheart ~ public demands on gender conforming women

I was walking to work last week – rushing actually, the overcrowded tram had run late – when an older gentleman walking towards me made eye contact, looked me up and down and said, “Smile, sweetheart, smile!”

How often have you heard this? How often have you (as I did that morning) forced a smile out of some strange sense of obligation, only to drop it a second later – your mood far worse after the encounter than before it.

I get this all the time and I’ve never really figured out why. I have some theories: I have a downturned mouth; my resting expression is quite serious; I’m often deep in thought when walking. But of course none of these things would matter if I wasn’t a woman. I have never witnessed anyone telling a man to cheer up and, for that matter, I’ve never been instructed to smile by a strange woman.

Further to this, I dress in quite a traditionally feminine manner, and I have a theory that women who do so are more frequently told to smile than those who don’t. (Please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.) Perhaps the dress and makeup is perceived as an invitation for attention – an implicit agreement to play by their rules. Perhaps it’s assumed that by ‘entreating’ attention I’m also giving permission for this particular form of behaviour policing.*

Because that’s what it is. At its heart this man – who knew nothing about me, what I was thinking, or what my situation was – was telling me to disregard my feelings and act happy in order to be more pleasant for him, and other people, to look at.

He wasn’t trying to cheer me up: a kind “good morning” might have accomplished that. Even a compliment would have been welcome. I’m all for politeness, friendliness, door holding, etc. In all honesty, if he had simply smiled at me I’m sure I would have returned it. But that wasn’t what this was: he was telling me how I should look.

Consider the vitriol heaped upon celebrities who don’t smile on the red carpet: Kirsten Stewart is an excellent example, and she’s commented on it: “People say that I’m miserable all the time. It’s not that I’m miserable, it’s just that somebody’s yelling at me…I literally, sometimes, have to keep myself from crying…It’s a physical reaction to the energy that’s thrown at you.” (Read more at this excellent post on Deeply Problematic.)

The conversation surrounding Kirsten Stewart’s expression is particularly relentless and bitter. I suspect this is for similar reasons that feminine dressers are more policed in this manner – an implicit contract: you’ve asked for our attention (by being an actor/singer/dancer, etc.), and now you owe us something pleasant to look at. You asked us to disregard your interiority when you made yourself something to be looked at – and so we have.

The comments frequent to these encounters are also censoring. I’ve heard “it’s not the end of the world” and “it might never happen” and “nothing’s that bad!”. The implication being that my worries aren’t valid or serious. What do these men suppose I’m thinking about? Shoes? Cupcakes? My knitting?**

Goodness forbid that a women express her feelings of dissatisfaction. That if she is feeling tired, distressed, angry or harassed, she makes it known. I have spent years, literally years, smiling because I have been instructed to by strange men in public. That morning was the last time.

*which is not to say that non-feminine dressers aren’t subject to a whole other kind of kind of appearance policing. But that is another post.

** for the record, I enjoy shoes, cupcakes and knitting.

Image taken from Patrick Q‘s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

6 thoughts on “Smile Sweetheart ~ public demands on gender conforming women

  1. I thought this was a really interesting article. I’ve had the same thing happen to me, much less frequently, but a few times over several years. And thinking about it, which I hadn’t really done, it has always been by men I don’t know. And it also made me feel crappy each time.
    I just came across an article also published yesterday about the same public occurrence, but that article makes me despair. It is entitled “Do you have a bitch face?”. Have you seen it? It’s at: http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/do-you-have-a-bitch-face-20120312-1uttr.html

    • Thank you! I’m glad you found it interesting.

      It’s crazy – and disappointing – what a common occurrence it is! And it universally makes people feel crappy too. I hadn’t read that article – what a strange way to talk about it. I guess I agree with her sentiment (“don’t tell us how to look”) but certainly not with the idea that some ladies just had an irrevocably bitchy face!

      • I must be one of those ladies, because I’m constantly told to smile by all manner of people. When I’m walking down the street I’m not going to be smiling a sweet smile while butterflies and birds flit about me. And anyway, people who smile at nothing and no one when they’re walking down the street are weird 😛

  2. I have heard a woman telling another woman to smile (in the office no less), I was shocked but new at the time so didn’t make a deal of it like I might now (depending on the people making the comment).
    I don’t think I have ever been told (that I have heard) by a stranger to smile while out and about minding my own business. Though I have been told I look somewhat forbidding when I’m in neutral, so perhaps that has something to do with it.
    My dad has told me to smile from time to time, I usually stick my tongue out at him – that sounds like a good strategy to adopt from now on if I ever am instructed to smile by a random.

  3. When this happens, I tell them that someone close to me has just died. I hate tempting fate but that little white lie always makes the man regret approaching me, and I like to think it makes him think twice about saying it to someone else. For all he knew, someone could have died and he shouldn’t assume that I’m thinking of shoes, cupcakes or knitting (though I like knitting too lol).

  4. Pingback: Does doing difference deny dominance? (vocal fry, sports sex testing, and resting bitch face edition) | Family Inequality

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