Tatyana is a young artist who knows what it people are really saying when they ask you to smile. She has an art campaign that features murals of her drawings depicting unsmiling women all over the world. She is raising awareness of street harassment. But all people, male and female, are really saying:
“You are part of the scenery: acknowledge it and fix your face.”
“Your expression is for me. And right now it’s bumming me out.”
“You look upsetting and ugly and you aren’t supposed to.”
“Your real emotions aren’t valid.”
“You are decorative; not functional.”
“You shouldn’t ever look like you are thinking because that’s not your job as a lady.”
“You are responsible for how others judge your appearance, when it’s their responsibility to judge you not based upon that.”
“It is my privilege to correct you, even if I don’t know you.”
“Pensive ain’t pretty, hon.”
“You are one weird-ass bitch.”
“You are not allowed to have private moments of thought.”
“I always have to look happy and so should you.”
“Buck up, girl. We are suffering too and we are always sucking it up and smiling.”
Growing up female in the South is fraught with special requirements. Always be kind, talkative, supportive, be an attentive hostess, put people at ease, have iced tea at the ready, and say “bless your heart” instead of “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” But, insidiously, the biggest requirement is to always appear happy and content and ready to help.
Which is understandably difficult given the social and practical and hormonal problems womanhood will saddle you with. I recall vividly every adult in my family telling me to smile from a very young age. As a larval lady they knew it was important that they teach me the appropriate social skills I needed for the future. And as a little girl, bringing delight into the lives of others was part of my job. I was cute and they wanted other people to think so as well.
But I was not a social kid. I’m not a social adult. Looking back, I definitely had a touch o’ the ‘sperger’s, and a great deal of social anxiety that still embarrasses my family at times. I would cry at summer day camp and preferred to be by myself with a book long before I could read or even tell what I was looking at. I was a silly, quiet child and that hasn’t changed as I’ve aged. I got into trouble for reading so many times, which seems ridiculous considering the number of kids who hate reading and have serious behavioral issues. They felt it somehow reflected badly on them. They’re sometimes assholes.
Only recently, by reading feminist articles, has it become clear to me that I can have any facial expression I want. My face belongs to me. I am NOT responsible for how people feel about it or interpret it. (That is, outside of a paying job or networking for one. The hospitality industry, after all, requires one to be hospitable.) It only bothers me when I’m off the clock. And especially when strange men make unsolicited suggestions. Then, it is about control and socially acceptable harassment and nothing else.
But looking into this I began to think about female facial expression expectations in general. There are certain ones we are supposed to have and ones which we are never supposed to have.