When I was in fourth grade, we had a class game. Each one of us had to bring in a photo from when we were very young and the photos were laid out in a grid on the wall. Each photo had a number, and students had to guess which photo went with which classmate by numbering a class list. As I recall, the photos were up for a few weeks, giving students ample time to review them and note their guesses.
One photo was 100% correctly identified by the class. One.
That photo was mine. What made it so easy to connect my chubby little baby face with my wiry little fourth grade self? It was all in the mouth; my baby mouth was turned down, exactly like my fourth grade mouth, exactly like my mouth right now. That’s because that’s the neutral position for my mouth.
People have hassled me about this for pretty much my entire life and it got worse after I incurred some facial nerve damage. Now, when I try to smile, sometimes it pulls my mouth into a grotesque leer. Sometimes one side of my mouth tilts up while the other twists down. Very rarely, I can ‘naturally’ smile. Both ends of my mouth turn up and I look ‘happy.’ Because, of course, the mouth is the only social cue for reading happiness, and people never, not ever, smile when they are not happy, right?
And I’m constantly told to smile. By complete strangers in the street. By ‘friends.’ When I worked in retail, by customers.
‘What have you got to frown about?’ ‘Smile, it would make you look so much nicer!’ ‘Why are you always frowning?’
The ‘smile, baby’ problem, as I call it, is something which a lot of people who are read as women experience. I will hazard a guess that at least some of our readers have experienced it; whatever the neutral position of your mouth is, whether or not you have nerve damage, whatever your mood at the time, someone, somewhere, has probably ordered you to smile.
It’s enough of a meme that it’s even cited as a feminist issue now and then; the smile police have some interesting intersections with how society thinks about women and their bodies. As my friend Hilary put it in frustration the other day, ‘I hate that I am expected to be nice all the time because I’m a woman.’ Not only are women expected to be nice (‘watch your tone!‘) they are also expected to be physically presentable, which means that they need to ‘smile, baby!’
It is indeed both common and rude to command others to smile, as if this conferred a favor by improving their outlook on life.
People order each other to smile because they feel uncomfortable around people who are not smiling, especially when those people are women (or are read as such). Women are expected to be nice and sweet, to make other people feel comfortable. A woman who says ‘hey, I think there’s a problem here’ is being ‘negative.’ A woman who doesn’t smile while she’s being harassed is ‘humourless.’ A woman who prefers to stay focused on tasks is a ‘cold bitch.’ Significant gendering is involved here; women have an obligation to look and act a certain way and when they don’t, they need to be hassled until they do.
And it’s perfectly acceptable, apparently, to talk up to a complete stranger and demand a smile. Just passing a woman who isn’t smiling in the street is such a horrible offense that it must be corrected immediately by telling her to ‘turn that frown upside down!’
Have you encountered the smile police? How do you deal with them?