Last Wednesday, I went to a club. It’s the kind with men who look you up and down to try and assess your worth with such intensity that I’m always surprised when they don’t ask to check my teeth. The DJ walks around with a microphone and talks to the crowd. At one point, he stopped in front of me and said over the sound system “It would really make my night if you could crack a fucking smile.”
This is a photo of me and him taken seconds after this happened. Needless to say, I am not smiling.
I have what is known as “permanent bitchface”, meaning that my features at rest fall into an expression that’s halfway between bored and scathing. (Tavi Gevinson from Rookie has done a hilarious tutorial if you aren’t naturally gifted in the art.)
I had to say “That’s just my face!” so often at my old job that someone wrote it on my card when I left. I have embraced it, and when I’m talking to people I make an extra effort to animate myself so they don’t think I’m going to shiv them.
However. Other people can’t seem to get on board with my bitchface. I’m frequently told that it might never happen (whatever “it” is), warned about the wind changing, and told I could be pretty if I smiled once in a while.
The US site recently had an article about Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and her street harassment art. The comments were filled with women talking about being told to cheer up. Some of them recounted witty retorts that they’ve used, which makes me ashamed because I’ve never said anything back.
I used to smile quickly and then hurry off, confused and embarrassed that someone was seemingly so horrified by my face that they wanted me to change it. Now I just pretend I don’t hear, which is harder when they say it into a microphone.
Verbal harassment is a difficult area because it’s easy for people to brush you off as joyless, someone who can’t take a joke. Harassment in the form of compliments or body policing is even worse, because people accuse you of being dramatic when you say it makes you feel uncomfortable. And it does make me uncomfortable; announcing that there is something fundamentally wrong with my face and attitude doesn’t exactly put me in the smiling mood. (Surprise!)
Personal issues put aside, why do people think they have the right say anything about someone’s appearance? It comes from the same place as fat-shaming and slut-shaming girls who wear clothes "too tight" or "too short". The best part is when the people who comment on my expression (about an equal balance between men and women) expect me to be grateful about it. Um, no. I am a generally happy person who is just trying to buy an aubergine.
I’m not on stage. If my miserable face offends you so much, don’t look at it. It’s as simple as that.
Celebrity magazines and “behind the scenes” footage demonstrate our incessant need to pry into, and ultimately judge, the lives of others. Victoria Beckham has become the poster girl for grumpy women, rarely papped smiling. (Who could smile, with photographers swarming around you at every turn?) Kristen Stewart has been roundly criticised for being too sulky on the red carpet. Anna Wintour is nicknamed the Ice Queen for her stern visage.
But not everyone’s mouth naturally curves upwards, and plastering on a fake grin really makes your cheeks hurt after a while. Why should these women have to contort their facial expressions every time they leave the house just to avoid body policing? Interestingly, I have never seen moody-looking men being told to smile by anyone except their mums.
The idea that women are here for decoration, to brighten the place up a bit, seems to linger like a bad smell. Heaven forbid that we look less than charming at times.
I think part of the problem is that we are raised to please. We’re told from an early age that we should be polite and personable, the kind of girls who don’t swear or scowl or put their elbows on the table. We’re peppered with popular sayings – everyone is beautiful when they smile! If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours! You’re never fully dressed without a smile!
Last time I checked, no one had gotten arrested for public indecency because they’re frowning. I denounce you, conventional wisdom, and I do so with a forehead that’s going to need Botox before I’m thirty five.
People accuse me of overreacting about this. They say “Why don’t you just smile until they’re out of sight? It’s much easier.” Easier than what? Self respect? Feeling comfortable? If I’m not smiling, it’s not because I’ve forgotten how to do it.
It’s because I’m thinking, or I’m in a bad mood, or I just don’t feel like stretching my face out for no reason. When I get told to smile, what I hear is – you should be more obliging. You should be more feminine, easier on the eye. You should look and act the way I want you to.
But I don’t smile, because I don’t have to be those things. I am not a dog that performs on demand. I am not here for anyone’s viewing pleasure. I will smile when I feel like smiling, and not a second sooner.
And the next time someone tells me that it takes more muscles to smile than to frown? I’ll tell them I’m doing a workout, and I will take my fabulous bitchface somewhere it’ll be appreciated.