On Smiling

“Why so Serious?”

LEGO Super Heroes Batman Batwing Battle 02” by Brick Resort, CC by ND-2.0


“Smile!”
“Why don’t you smile more?”
And my favorite (read: I will punch you in your throat if you say this to me), “Turn that frown upside down!”

Tangent Alert: I added the Lego Joker because if I’m being honest, the real Jokers freaked me out too much. Too much like clowns, which are terrifying. But whenever someone tells me to smile, my brain translates it to Heath Ledger’s “Why so serious?” from The Dark Knight.

I hear this on what seems like a daily basis. Whether it’s an annoying coworker, that overly friendly old lady at the post office, one of my weird uncles, or a creep on the street, I’ve gotten this far too many times. And I’m sure I’m not the only woman who does. Maybe sometimes it is meant well. More than anything, it makes me feel uncomfortable. Even if it is well-meant, it seems more for their benefit than mine. This isn’t some kind check-in on my well-being, rather, it’s a comment on my appearance from someone who, more times than not, couldn’t care less whether or not I’m having a good day. And yet strangers in the street feel the need to call out to me and tell me to smile. To be clear, this doesn’t happen often or anywhere near where I live. It’s typically in cities if I am either traveling or just going downtown to have a nice dinner with my husband or friends. Objectively speaking, I’m neither ugly nor beautiful. Just like normal-looking I think. I don’t do the makeup thing or pay meticulous attention to fashion trends. Nothing that should stop a stranger in their tracks and make them feel the need to comment. I just comb my hair and try to make sure my clothes match.

Apart from being utterly aggravating to me, what does this interaction add to society? Is it a compliment? No. Does it make that person feel better? Maybe, but does it add a positive in their karma column? I think not. Does it initiate a positive conversation between strangers? As I am abruptly walking away, no. Does it make me realize the error of my surly ways and become instantly friendlier and more palatable? Decidedly, no. I’m a serious person. Even if I wasn’t, I’m not the kind of psycho that walks down the street with a grin plastered on my face without any external stimuli. That’s super weird.

Sometimes, I wonder if I should just shout something completely random back at the strangers on the street, and even those annoying coworkers. You want me to smile? Why, are you going to tell me a joke? Or, why don’t you? Or, I don’t want my face to freeze like that. Or, sorry I don’t have any teeth! Or even, go call your mother.

But I’m not that brave. What I am is furious at the underlying and insidious subtlety that implies my only purpose as a woman on this earth is to be aesthetically pleasing. To not offend. To be pretty and placid and obedient. Like a pet. I’m sure no one means it that way, at least are not actively thinking that, but it’s one of those micro-aggressions that proliferates a culture of wanting women being seen and not heard. I’ve never in my life heard someone tell a man to smile.

Speaking of pets, my dog loves smiling. And what reason does she have not to? She has no job or worries.

Meanwhile, I walk through my life with unseen burdens. Everyone does. Which is why I can’t understand how another person could completely reduce those burdens to the advice that I should smile. Implying that any reason I might have for not smiling should just be ignored. That it can just be ignored. As a stranger or acquaintance, you can’t possibly know why someone isn’t smiling.

I could certainly smile more. There are supposedly benefits to smiling. In addition to appearing friendlier (why would you ever want to do that?), smiling can improve your mood, relieve stress, and some say even ease depression and anxiety. I read about this trick to force yourself to smile by holding a pen or pencil between your teeth. This is supposed to simulate happiness and improve your mood – the pencil makes your face muscles smile which has the same effect as your brain registering happiness and smiling as a response. Some kind of positive feedback loop I suppose. I’ve tried it and the results for me are at worst neutral and at best the pencil makes me forget what I was sad/mad/angry about because I’m concentrating on keeping the pencil in my mouth and monitoring whether or not I feel any happier. Half the time I’m doing this while trying to work and end up ripping my workspace apart trying to find my pencil when it’s in my mouth the whole time, because that’s just not a normal place to keep a pencil. There were a few scientific studies done on the pencil trick, which evidently were later proven inconclusive through an analysis of the replication studies. Good, I say. You mostly just end up looking like an idiot and drooling all over your writing utensils.

If I remember, I’ll tell this to the next person who tells me to smile. Screw turning my frown upside down. You can throw your smile on a garbage pile. Hopefully I think of a more eloquent rhyme by then.

Yours,
Quietly Seething

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