You Are Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile?

Stop Telling Me To Smile.

It’s just after midnight. I stride into the hotel lobby. “Smile!” commands a man I don’t know from a can of paint as he strolls past me. Poor sod: he has picked the wrong day. The spirit of Bianca del Rio possesses me. “#NotTodaySatan!” I think, hashtag and all.  I spin around; there is as much fire in that demi-pirouette as there is coursing through my veins:

“When was the last time someone told YOU what to do with your body?”

smile

I started this story in medias res to capture how arresting it is to be confronted with commands, regardless how rudimentary, by men. I have long grown accustomed to people I do not know, the preponderance of them being men, rolling up on me, dictating that I “smile!” Do I suffer from the unfortunate syndrome of Resting Bitch Face? Perhaps. Even I have marveled, seeing footage of myself on stage, at how dour my expression looks when the musculature of my countenance comes to rest.  RBF notwithstanding, one must cull a healthy dose of temerity to approach a complete stranger and mete out instructions on the basis of  one’s whims and caprices.  If little orphan Annie was right when she sang “You are never fully dressed without a smile,” then I must have been so naked in  (his understanding) of my womanhood that this man, riding high on his (conscious or unconscious) (mis)perception of an authority gradient, felt he could tell this woman what to do. He might as well have told me to run, heel, or to “Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog!”
Why do men tell women to smile? I’ve oft heard the argument that they want me to “be happy” or make me “feel better”, or even better yet: “you’ll look prettier when you smile!”
Dear Deus ex machina, thank you for swooping down, in all of your gallantry, to quibble enough to save me from myself, but, let’s break this down into bullet points, shall we:
  • The assumption that someone is unhappy because they are not smiling (or happy because they are) is nothing but, well, an assumption, and an uneducated one at that. Haven’t you heard that there are “daggers in..smiles” and that “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face?” The topography of my visage is not necessarily a window into the atmosphere  of my soul. Practice your clairvoyance elsewhere.
  • Even if someone were not smiling because they are unhappy, that person is  entitled to wear their face however they choose (assuming the look is purposeful), and quite frankly, entitled to be immersed in whatever sadness they are feeling. There is room enough in this life to feel all manner of emotions. If you want to make people smile, go and join the circus.
  • But, most importantly, even if there is scientifically proven causation between turning the frown upside down and an increase in feelings of joy, instructing a woman you do not know to smile isn’t tantamount to reaching out your hand to pull her out of the stygian abyss of her sorrow: it is an imposition of  what you deem is appropriate for her to do with the thing that is more hers than anything else: her person. It is an assertion of authority, no matter on how small a scale. It is not about her at all– it is about you and your comfort. The purpose of our being, as women, is not to adorn your world, looking pretty for your pleasure.

Picture a man telling another man he passes on the street to smile. That happens  almost never. I do not doubt that many men do think they are doing me a favour by insisting I smile like a trained monkey eager to please her master, or Feste, the fool (who at the very least was on payroll).  Indeed, the offense is often inadvertent, as is the case with many an offense. But, too often, when I relate stories about such transgressions perpetrated by men and my ripostes to their acts, my girlfriends share the same sentiments and stories, coupled with a regret that they did not voice their displeasure to the men in question. It was only a few days ago that Michael B. Jordan’s publicist was forced to issue a mea culpa — after the internets (sic) eviscerated him — for statements he made to GQ magazine, repeatedly referring to women as “females”. He asserts that he did not know that reducing a woman to an  adjective used primarily in discussing biological function is a synecdoche that is both dehumanizing and subjugating. What, Mr. Jordan? Nobody ever told you?

“I had no idea” is too often the excuse given by men in these situations. About a year ago, as I walked out of a party, a male guest to whom I had just been introduced,  pulled me by the waist and shoulder “playfully”, waxing on about how he had been looking at me all night and how I ought to chat with him for a bit, quite literally twisting my wrist into entertaining his nonsense. He would not unhand me, however “playfully”, even as I wriggled and made my discomfort apparent.  Don’t get me wrong, I did not perceive that I was in danger, but I did know that this man was exercising privilege by piercing the kinesphere of a woman he’d just met, and thinking, worst of all, that she would be flattered by his intrusion. This playful pulling went on for about 2 minutes. (2 minutes longer than I should have stomached it all, frankly (blame Yoga)). Finally, I pulled myself away, looked him dead in the eye, and asked him point blank: “What makes you think you have to right to manhandle me? Furthermore, what makes you think I’m going to stand here and take this shit?” Needless to say, he vanished like salt sprinkled into boiling water; I guess I was not his type of gal after all.

When I griped about the experience, the male friend who had introduced us, replied, “I had no idea you were being held against your will.” Oh, was I supposed to be flattered by his friend’s ovations when or because he felt it was permissible (advisable, even) to violate the space of someone he doesn’t know from Eve, simply because his actions were “playfully” maneuvered? Do I look like a toy? What about the glare in my eye betrays the well-cached secret that I am indeed a doll and not a woman? What he failed to realize is that his friend’s behaviour (and by extension, his own response) signaled unvitiated disrespect; it was a blatant display of the male sense of entitlement that latently plagues The System and makes such trespasses quotidien, and thus appear insignificant.

Yet, insignificant they are not.  Unchecked, these “small” attacks on  personal sovereignty will thrive, and “microaggressions” may morph into macroaggressions if we do not disabuse men of their myths and fallacies. I am a woman, not a plaything. Do not attempt to take away my agency, in whatever seemingly innocuous fashion, and expect me to hand it over to you in the incarnation of silence. I will tell you. We should all tell them. Dominion over every square inch of my body is mine and solely mine. If you are so feverishly aching to see my teeth, perhaps you should do something to earn that smile, instead of demanding one from the comfort of your ersatz throne.

 

About Natasha

Word- and dough-smith. Girl in search of "the illumination, that ecstatic flash, from which truth emerges".

3 comments

  1. Julius

    I don’t do #cute I do #dropdeadgorgeous

  2. Adaeze

    Hi Natasha, been a while I have read your blog. This article is so true. In fact I used to feel i’m was the only one who feels this way about certain male behavior and the smile command. I have always made my position clear to erring Nigerian men. When I was reading this article yesterday I was on my way to Ghana. Thank you for being the most beautiful form of beauty. I’m in Ghana now and I’m anxious and happy to get to know the cultures, people and country. Because you are such an admirable person. I love your blog.

    • Hello Adaeze,

      I’m glad to hear that you stand your ground and let people know how you feel in situations such as these. You are far too kind re: your comments about me. Thank you for reading my blog and for writing to let me know that you enjoy it. It means more than I can ever express. I hope you’ve had a wonderful stay in Ghana.

      x
      Natasha

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