Once, when I was a student, a man said to me, “You look so much better when you smile.” He thought he was paying me a compliment and expected to be rewarded with a huge grin. I’m ashamed to admit that I did smile at him — but it was a cover-up for my discomfort, not a genuine smile.
At the age of 18 I had mixed emotions about his comment. I felt uneasy, I felt confused, I felt embarrassed. I certainly didn’t take it as a compliment or feel empowered by it.
Back then there were no social media hashtags and it would be a long time before I recognised the acts of everyday sexism that would affect me for the rest of my life.
The #StopTellingWomentoSmile hashtag was first used in 2012 by illustrator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh to protest about street harassment. It’s back on our radar after U.S. reality TV personality Whitney Way Thore posted on her personal Facebook page about an encounter with a cashier at a petrol station who demanded a smile from her.
“I love to smile, when I feel happy and when I want to,” Thore told BBC News. “But I don’t love to smile when I’m commanded to and when I’m bribed and manipulated to.”
Thore’s post attracted over 95,000 likes and hundreds of comments and also triggered a debate. Some fans disagreed that the cashier had been sexist and accused Thore of being oversensitive.
“Maybe he just saw you looked stressed and not feeling well and wanted to brighten your day?” suggested Stephanie Pérez Rakestraw, while Dawn Mennillo commented, “here is a guy who was trying to make a light situation and bring out a smile in somebody. He wasn’t asking for much it was free and it was quick and it might have done you some good after a hard day and a headache. (sic)”
“It’s not a feminist issue or a stereotype issue…. It’s not even an issue at all, in my opinion,” posted Lacey Kate. “Do what you want but there are bigger things to worry about in the world.”
However many women believe that is an issue and one that deserves attention. Fazlalizadeh calls it a “micro-aggression,” a harmful act that may not be seen as such because it seems small and therefore not a big deal.
In response to the argument that there are more important women’s issues to be addressed, Fazlalizadeh says it’s “all within the same conversation” and not something that should be left out in order to focus solely on rape or domestic violence.
She made a further point on this issue last week when she posted her response to a man who asked why he shouldn’t ask women to smile:
Would a grown man ask another man to smile for him in exchange for gum? It’s highly unlikely — and that’s the point made by many of Thore’s supporters.
“It is sexist because no one asks men to smile,” wrote Danielle Alcon. “So why do people feel the need to tell women to smile? Telling me to smile is not going to make ME feel better, it’s going to make YOU feel better because I’m doing something YOU told me to do to please YOU!”
Thore revealed that her original Facebook post “has gotten more backlash from my own fans, followers, acquaintances, and even a family member than I have ever experienced.” She has been called “a shallow, vapid reality tv star, a diva, a liar, not a role model (anymore), and worse.”
What’s undeniable is that how women feel about being told to smile is definitely controversial and that alone makes it an important issue.