This week when I was filling up the car, a bloke at the petrol pump opposite looked over to me and said, ‘Cheer up, love. It might never happen!’ I was so flustered by his comment that I think I might have laughed back at him to show him I wasn’t always a miserable cow – I was just struggling with the lock on the petrol cap.
Almost immediately afterwards, I was kicking myself at my lame-ass response. I basically obeyed an order from an intrusive stranger. I let him judge me, without a hint of a clue as to who I am and what I might have to frown about, and I chose to please him rather than defend my situation.
Thinking back, this has happened to me on a few occasions. I don’t think I’ve got a particularly severe ‘resting bitch face’, and even if I do, it doesn’t give complete strangers the right to think they can control me, my mood and my actions with one simple command.
Telling a woman to ‘smile’ is patronising and incredibly condescending. For that moment, it reduces her worth to no more than her ability to please the person that demands a smile from her. How incredibly messed up is that, when you really think about it?
When you ask someone to smile, it isn’t really about cheering them up, it’s about you being happy that the world around you looks that way you want it to look. It can be completely unintentional, but off-the-cuff comments like this are casually thrown about every day and women are generally just too damn tired, or embarrassed or scared to disobey or challenge them. I know, I’m bloody one of them!
What is really depressing about all of this is that from birth, we say ‘smile’ to girls all the time. And when we’re not saying it to them, we buy clothes to remind them to smile, just in case they feel sad about something and they drop the happy façade.
I recently walked through the clothes section at my local supermarket to pick up some bits for my daughter, and there were no less than three separate t-shirt designs that ordered girls to ‘smile’. Want to know how many there were in the boys’ section? None. Why is it that we encourage girls to smile and not boys? Why are we still so obsessed with the notion of a passive, smiling female? And why would it be interpreted as a weakness or out of the ordinary for a boy to smile?
If you want people to smile, you need to give them something to smile about. Make more people happy, do more nice things for the people around you. But don’t always expect a smile. A smile needs to be earned, and it’s not yours to demand. We need to spend less time encouraging people to smile, and more time doing ‘smile-worthy’ acts.
Have you ever had a stranger tell you to ‘cheer up’, or ‘smile’? How did it make you feel? I’m genuinely interested in how widespread this is, and how it impacts the people that have experienced it.