Truth Seeking in a Smile

It’s My Smile, Not Yours

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across an interesting post. It was a link to an article published by the Los Angeles Times titled “ ‘Smile!’ How a villain’s phrase in ‘Jessica Jones’ exposes modern day sexism.”

I’ve never watched the show, but the title intrigued me, so I clicked on the link and gave it a read. David Tennant is one of the actors, so I’ll have to give it a look. (Yes, I am a Whovian.) Basically, the author was discussing the idea that telling a woman to smile is a form of modern misogyny.

I wasn’t really sure what to think after reading the article. I’m sure I’ve told people to “smile” before, but I don’t recall a particular instance. I can’t imagine myself saying that to a stranger. I think they were all people I knew, family members, friends, or students. So maybe it’s different because I have a genuine relationship with those people. If I tell someone to “smile,” I’m trying to encourage them to keep going, to remind them that they are not alone and that even though things might seem dark at that moment, there are a lot of good things in this world to smile about.

Despite these positive and supportive motivations, I still felt uncomfortable after reading the article. Mostly because an incident from my own past came to mind. The time a complete stranger told me, practically yelled at me, to smile.

No Smile

(Here are a few pics from last year.)

It happened a little less than seven years ago, in early May of 2009. I know the date so well because it happened on my one and only trip to Maui for my cousin’s wedding. At first, I didn’t think I would be able to go. My parents and my sister, who I had planned to share the hotel with, couldn’t go because my sister was expecting her first child. She could fly to Hawaii, but by the time the wedding was over, she wouldn’t be able to fly home.

It was my second year as a teacher and my budget was pretty tight. I also had to plan for a trip to Colorado after the baby was born. So, unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be able to attend the wedding. At least that was the plan.

It was, however, my second year of teaching.

I was exhausted and rapidly approaching burn out. I’d heard that a lot of teachers didn’t make it past their second year in the classroom and I didn’t want to add to the statistic. So, the weekend before the wedding, when I was searching through Yahoo Travel and found a decent deal, I jumped. I needed a vacation, desperately, and my cousin’s wedding was the perfect excuse.

Three days later I was on a plane to Hawaii. One of my other cousins picked me up at the airport and dropped me off at the hotel recommendation that was the most budget friendly. With a few hours to kill before the first pre-wedding event, I headed outside. I needed some alone time. I needed to breath in the ocean air and hear the lullaby of crashing waves. And that’s exactly what I got.

After less than half an hour of sand between my toes, and an ocean breeze against my skin, I was starting to feel rejuvenated. I felt peaceful and relaxed in a way that I hadn’t felt in months.

That, unfortunately, was when it happened. I was strolling down South Kihei Road, throughly enjoying the sun and the calm when someone yelled at me to smile. His words, which I remember to this day, were “You’re in Hawaii for God’s sake. Smile.”

I don’t really remember what I said to him. He was across the street and easy to avoid. I think I made a smart comment he wouldn’t be able to hear, and kept walking. I didn’t want to start anything. I was alone. I was there to relax. And he was a complete stranger. I told myself it didn’t matter. Then I brushed off his comment and enjoyed my five days in paradise.

But the incident still bothers me, even years later. The stranger’s command, for that’s what it was, felt like an intrusion. I had come to Maui to get away. Yes, I wanted to see my family and celebrate my cousin’s wedding, but on a deeper level, I needed some time to myself to relax and breathe.

Less than an hour into my alone time, I was being yelled at by a complete stranger, ordered around by someone who didn’t even know my name. He wasn’t trying to cheer me up, or show encouragement. If anything, he sounded angry, annoyed that I would dare to walk down South Kihei Road without a huge grin on my face.

It won’t surprise anyone that the first comments I read connected to the article in the Los Angeles Times were dismissive and rude. Many argued that people are taking feminism too far if you can’t even tell someone to smile.

But are they? Do you have a right to comment on someone’s face? On their smile? Or lack of one?

Ordering someone to smile is not the same thing as checking in on them. It’s not the same thing as asking them how they are, or if they need help. If the man who yelled at me in Maui was really worried about me, couldn’t he have said a polite hello, or made a polite comment about what a beautiful day it was?

Being addressed while I was walking alone might have caused me to blush. It definitely would have caused me to take closer stalk of my surroundings. But the sun was out, we were surrounded by people, and I was perfectly safe. So, I would have smiled back, wished him a wonderful day, and continued walking.

He could have seen my smile without demanding it. Instead, he felt the need to give me an order. That is where the problem lies.

So, the next time you want to tell someone to “smile,” stop for a minute. Ask yourself who they are, if you have a right to comment on their smile, and what else you could say to cheer them up, if they even need cheering up. I didn’t. Maybe the person you’re worried about doesn’t either.

If you’re telling someone to smile because their facial expression bothers you, you might want to keep your opinion to yourself.


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