As a former New Yorker, I spent 15 years walking everywhere. (Twice, I walked home from the hospital after visits to the emergency room.) There’s a lot I miss about walking everywhere and walking often. One thing I don’t miss about being a female pedestrian in New York City: the male audience. Where two or more men are gathered, they become the non-silent observers of every woman who passes them on foot. (Heck, it doesn’t even take two men. Even the one-man band spectatorship of a single male onlooker is daunting.)
Male commentary about female passersby is nothing new, and you don’t have to be (or have been) a city dweller to know its frustrations. Most women don’t make it through this life without ever being pedestrian. As frequent foot-travelers, most women also don’t make it through this life without a man closely watching us and our gait, then offering his unsolicited appraisal or advice about what he sees.
There we are, we pedestrian women, running late for an appointment and marching purposefully in stacked boots on a sidewalk; hoofing it in pumps on a cobblestone street trying not to cringe with every step; reluctantly ambling through the corridors of a noisy mall when you need to buy something with the immediacy that online shopping can’t provide; roaming the grocery store parking lot looking for your car whose location you can’t remember; navigating the terminals in an unfamiliar airport; or even wandering the aisles of a sanctuary to find an empty seat in the crowded pews on Sunday morning.
And there he is, the male observer who sees you walking by and sees that you’re focused on getting where you need to go. But, he wonders, why are you so damn focused? Why do you look visibly busy when you’re not actually busy by conventional standards? You’re not typing a dissertation and walking or talking on the phone and walking or painting a masterpiece and walking or dribbling a basketball and walking. You’re just walking. Yet your brow is furrowed and your gaze is occupied. But as long you’re walking and not physically distracted, then there’s no reason for you not to throw away your worldly concerns and take up acting at this moment. Be an unpaid actress in this stranger’s fantasy who wants you to become the sexier and prettier version of yourself that he concocted in the 45 seconds that he’s been watching the real you. Why aren’t you straightening your back, arching it even, sticking out your ass and swinging your head in his direction to throw him a smile? You see him standing there. You know he’s looking at you. The nerve of you. The least you could do is entertain him.
And so, he says it. He is the director assuming his seat in the folding chair and shouting out acting cues and directions.
“Smile!” he shouts. “You’re too pretty to look so mean.”
Now, we’ve all been there. Many writers before me have lamented the aggravation of hearing the “smile” command from men (and at least one swell guy is spreading the word to his male compatriots). Suffice it to say the last thing any woman wants to be told—ever—is to smile. Sure, smiling has tons of good-for-you benefits, like reducing stress, and fake-smiling is good for you, too. Despite that, women have more than a few reasons to explain why telling a woman to smile is not as harmless as it seems. (Chief among them: “Where do you get off telling me what to do, person who doesn’t know me?!?”)
But men aren’t the only officers of the smiling police. Women bring down the smiling heat on each other, too:
Anytime we see an unsmiling friend and we ask her, “What’s wrong?”—or worse, “What’s wrong with you?”—in that less concerned than judgmental tone that’s really saying, “You should look happier. You have every reason to look happy,” which is sometimes code for “Why aren’t you happy to see me?” “Why am I not putting a smile on your face?” or “Why aren’t you polite enough to look like everything’s fine so I don’t have to bear the weight of your melancholy?”
Anytime we pop into our boss’s office, and she looks up from her desk like she wishes that we hadn’t popped into her room. Crestfallen or befuddled, we say, “Oh, well, if it’s a bad time…” like emotional ninnies who want her to assuage our insecurities with a pleasant look. As if bosses should always seem happy when they see us, as if a friendly appearance is a requirement for leadership, as if we can only ask someone a question if she’s smiling at us.
Anytime we spank or reprimand daughters, and then tell them to “fix your face” afterwards as if she’s not entitled to the hurt and disillusionment of being punished by a parent. (Shout out to to the little girl who was spanked on a Sunday morning and whose mother chastised her to “smile!” in the car on the way to church, which is how the little girl first learned to smile-cry. Oh, wait. Maybe that little girl was only me.)
Smiling is an exercise of prerogative; it’s not an issue of right. Smiling is good for us, yes. But so is kale. So the next time an unsmiling woman makes you yearn for a turn-a-frown-upside-down machine, think about every (well-meaning?) man who has ever pummeled you with any one of the “smile!” commandments (“Smile! It’ll make you look prettier.” “Smile! Why do you look so mad?”)
If anything, smile at her. Then remember: She doesn’t have to smile back.