"Smile!" What appears to be an innocuous command, posing as a suggestion, from one individual to a girl or woman (never have I seen or heard a male recipient) is fraught with sexism, condescension, belittlement, arrogance, insensitivity, and irritation. That's why I was pleased to see yet another growing effort to stop this ridiculous trend of asking one person to conform her facial gestures to help make the other person more comfortable.
What's the big deal?
Miss Manners has a fantastic example from her own life that aptly illustrates why "Smile!" is rude and insensitive. I'm confident most women have similar stories. Mine is no different.
I've had bitchy resting face all my life. Much like having brown hair and wide feet, it's not something I can help. Even if it is, I don't feel any obligation to "correct" something I don't perceive to be a problem. What's interesting is how the reactions to my bitchy resting face from people around me have evolved over time.
Ages 5 to 21
From childhood to the person I am today, I have always been an extrovert. But similar to introverts, I needed some time to sink inside myself and recharge. Although I wasn't making a deliberate effort to do so, I would take time out of my day to quiet down a bit and think about random things.
In elementary school, we had indoor recess on rainy days. One day happened to coincide with someone's birthday. A bunch of small children running around inside, squealing, playing, laughing, and fighting for cupcakes sounds exhausting because it is exhausting. I was physically drained from all the chaos so I grabbed a chapter book and went into the coatroom to read. A teacher found me and demanded to know why I was upset because I "looks so sad and frowny" to her. After explaining to her that I just wanted to be alone before the bell rang, she brought me to her desk, handed me a tissue, and wanted to know what was really bothering me. My explanations weren't sufficient, and that teacher brought up the incident to my parents during parent/teacher conferences. Because it was several weeks later, I'd long forgotten my normal behavior when my mom brought it up to me. That made things worse.
When I was in middle school and high school, I struggled a lot with math. Whenever I'm concentrating or studying something, as you'll see later, I furrow my brows and/or squint. I know that furrowed brows can also mean anger or sadness, which is why context is everything when it comes to facial expressions.
I had two separate incidents where my furrowed brows caught the attention of teachers. The first was in middle school with Mr. Sprig. As I was trying to decipher ratios, Mr. Sprig stopped mid-lecture to say, "Okay what is your problem?" I was concentrating on the lesson so I didn't think his criticism applied to me. The room was silent. I looked up, and everyone was staring at me. "What?" I asked. "I don't know what it is you think I've done to you, but I don't appreciate your attitude." I was confused so, naturally, my facial expression changed to that. "Oh don't give me that crap. You know what I'm talking about." Mr. Sprig rolled his eyes and moved on. I was so stunned I couldn't move.
I had a similar situation later in high school in Mr. Wade's algebra class. My furrowed brow crept up again. This time, the teacher walked directly to my desk and stood in front of me with his hands on his hips. "Look, missy, you've got a lot of cajones having an attitude like that. You don't like the way I teach this class? Get out and don't come back." This time, I tried not to be stunned so I froze. (Unfortunately that brought me face to face with his crotch, but it was better than looking at him directly.)
Ages 21 to 28
During this time, I was beginning my long journey into the work world. My first internship consisted of planning a expert panel that was part of a larger conference. One of my duties was to time each panelist so that the event didn't spill over into the time Q&A portion and the lunch hour. My boss was moderating the panel.
When the panel started, I began timing each person. About 20 minutes into the event, I caught my boss's eye. She kept motioning towards her face — first two fingers on both hands hovering over the corners of her mouth and gesturing up. I thought something was on my face. She scribbled down a note and sent it to me. To this day, I have the note memorized: stop looking so serious. you need to look more alive. Later on, my boss also complained that the keynote panelist, a woman who was a national expert in child psychology, was "too serious" and "really glum" in her presentation.
The topic of the panel? Violence in America's Schools: What Columbine Taught Us. (Columbine occurred four months before.) Clearly a cheerful issue.
Age 28 to present
My acceptance of my bitchy resting face has coincided with fewer but more annoying individuals in my life being un-accepting. I have a coworker who constantly asks me what is wrong at least twice a week. "Nothing is wrong. It's just how I look," never satiates her.
Most notable is a former boss. Over the years, she said various things about my facial expressions when I'm going through my regular duties, which include reading a lot of complex material:
"What's wrong now?"
"Why is your problem this time?"
"You're stressing me out when you look like that."
"It's not healthy to frown all the time."
In nearly all of those situations, I was reading or thinking about something. I had never demonstrated any anger before or after she said something, although those statements threw off my concentration and irritated me. In the meantime, my male coworker slammed doors and kicked a table leg when something pissed him off. "He's just so passionate," my boss remarked.
While you may think that ordering a woman to "Smile!" would brighten her day, think about what that means on a larger level to the other person. Women, just like men, are capable of a range of facial emotions other than happy over a shoe sale or sad at a TV character dying off or mad at a pantyhose run.
Most importantly, a woman is not responsible for how strangers react to what's on her face. It's condescending. It's sexist. It's controlling. It's demeaning. If you're so compelled to demand a complete stranger to change what's on her face, stop and ponder how absolutely terrible your "request" really is and why you think you have the right to do so.
EDIT: What's the male equivalent of bitchy resting face?