The Myth That Women Must Smile

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“You should smile, life isn’t that bad.”

“Cheer up!”

“Smile, it makes you prettier.”

“You look miserable.”

These comments are only a few I have personally received. The social expectation that women have to smile to show they are happy, or approachable, is harassment; not to mention sexist. When a man tells a woman to smile, he is giving his opinion on her looks and commanding her to do something that would make him happy, while simultaneously implying that men don’t need to smile by the standards of society but women do.

Whether they be a celebrity, newscaster, politician, etc., in the media women are often the target of comments about whether they are “approachable” or “having a bad day” if they are not smiling. After it was announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, there were hundreds of comments on Twitter about her photo. One tweet, “Is there a different picture of Harriet Tubman where she looks happier we could use?” My first thought was that this must be a joke! In every single bill in American currency: not one male is smiling. Yet people (mostly men) think it okay to comment on Tubman’s smile instead of on this woman’s amazing history.

488337161A friend of mine shared this story from her workplace: “In a business conference, the only feedback I received (good or bad) from my bosses (all men) was I needed to smile more. I needed to smile during lectures or presentations. I needed to be more approachable. I looked standoffish and unwelcoming. However, the truth was I engaged when it was necessary and for the benefit of the situation. I thought it was ludicrous to ask me to smile when someone was presenting. I asked them if they (the senior leadership) had asked the male audience to do the same thing, since the men were certainly not smiling during presentations. I knew the answer.” She added that situations like this have occurred on multiple occasion.

When I was in the military, a male-dominated career field, and even as a cop this happened almost daily. If I showed up to work not smiling, a male colleague of mine would ask me, “What’s wrong?” or, “Why are you in such a bad mood?” I once was told, “It must be that time of the month.” Why do I have to smile for them? Why am I in a bad mood if I’m not smiling? On the inside I could be in a great mood. On the flip side, if I smiled, acted happy and cheerful towards a male cop, I was accused of flirting, or in their mind I wanted to sleep with them. I wasn’t taken seriously in supervisory roles. I was pulled into my boss’s office a few times and was told that other people were complaining that I was being “bitchy,” and I should be more approachable. He literally told me to smile more at work. I was a cop. What male cop do you see cheerfully smiling all the time? I was called into his office again, because a male colleague didn’t like the way I spoke to him, saying I showed an unwelcoming persona. I respectfully asked both times, “If I was a male worker, would you have pulled me into this office and given the same talk?” Instantly the mood changed. I believe he knew that he wouldn’t have. All he said was that’s all he had to say and dismissed me.

Perfect strangers have told me to smile, whether it was on a bus, at a coffee shop, the library, a clothing store, etc. Women do not owe anyone a smile. I don’t owe men a smile, and, like everyone else, unless they give me a reason not to, I can have “resting bitch face” everyday if I would like. I challenge all men, especially the ones who have ever told a girl to smile, to step back and ask if you would say the same thing to another man.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

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