We Are Not Amused

Don’t tell us to smile. Women shouldn’t have to grin and bear it.

As the Stylist article states: ‘Smiling is an international language’. Wherever you are in the world, a smile’s meaning transcends borders. At its most genuine and spontaneous, a smile is a beautiful thing… And at its most disingenuous and unspontaneous, it is most definitely not.

To be a woman and to not smile, it appears offensive and not the done thing. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have been labelled difficult, grumpy and aloof as a result. Victoria Beckham is frequently held up as an example of ‘miserable-looking’ because she doesn’t smile for the cameras, her pout being declared part of a stoic branding statement. Similarly, Anna Wintour’s sunglasses-covered solemnity is the subject of countless caricatures and commentary.

When Hillary Clinton didn’t smile, she was judged as robotic and non-human; when she did, she was deemed false and untrustworthy.

A 1987 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly found that the absence of smiles had
a greater impact on perceptions of women than on perceptions of men. When not smiling, women were perceived as less happy, less carefree and less relaxed.

I have found that if I don’t smile, I am criticised. I am often judged by how smart I am and not how pleasant I am. However, especially at school, I was judged as being clever and therefore less approachable, even though I would never be anything but warm and friendly to someone.

There is such a pressure to smile; putting on a brave face. I find this belittling and a dismissive thing to hear but when I don’t smile, I’m made to feel rude.

Gender smile discrimination has even acted as the inspiration for art: Stop Telling Women To Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. She has called being told to smile, “a sexist microaggression”. This addresses the gender-based street harassment by placing drawn portraits of women, composed with captions that speak directly to offenders, outside in public spaces.

Many studies have confirmed that women actually smile more than men do, and the way we are socialised as children plays a big part in this. Girls are praised for and encouraged to smile, whereas boys are said to start getting messages from peers, parents and teachers not to smile or show emotion very early on.

I have always been taught to smile nicely, defuse pain, and disguise unhappiness. Socially, smiling implies friendliness, whereas for men, this is not powerful or seen as ‘manly’. I am guilty of smiling through things in order to fit in and appear agreeable.

This wasn’t always the case. Historically, women who smiled too much were considered sluttish or false. In the 20th century, the rise in advertising culture saw the female grin become ubiquitous as a way of marketing products, particularly domestic ones. And so, in the public imagination, the smiling woman became the happy, subservient housewife.

At its best, smiling is good for us; genuine smiling helps me to feel uplifted and less stressed. As one of the simplest forms of human interaction, it elicits untold warmth and good feeling. But we shouldn’t force it if we don’t feel like it.


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