Rosie knows it might happen at the Benson convenience store nearest her home, readies herself for it as she finds her items and gets in line to pay.
She could be wearing a gigantic puffy coat in frigid January or shorts in blazing July. She could be buying beer or tampons.
Rosie has noticed that it does not matter where she is or what she is doing. She could be stuck in line at the store, or walking down Maple Street or going about her life as a nurse, a U.S. Navy veteran, a wife and mother of two.
“You really should smile,” a man will say.
Or: “Why you so mad? Smile!”
Or: “You’re pretty. You would be prettier if you smiled.”
In this moment, Rosie Meegan is faced with a choice that nearly all women recognize, and a choice of which most men are blissfully unaware.
She can smile, even though a male stranger telling her to smile makes her feel the exact opposite of smiley. Or she can say no and potentially face his wrath.
It feels a little like a game show where you choose between Door 1 and Door 2, except when they open the door there’s never a new car. There’s only a lifetime supply of frustration.
“I mean, maybe I’m mad,” Rosie explains. “Maybe my relative just died. Maybe he should ask this guy next to me in line to smile. ... Do you notice how no one ever asks him?
“And what really gets me is, why do you care if I smile? Why do you care?”
I have spent the past month asking women about other men who ask them to smile. I have asked young women and older women, professional women and women in the service industry, women of several body types and ethnicities and political affiliations. I have had long, fascinating, troubling conversations with women I love, and with women I had never before met.
Today I’m here to report this: If men actually wish happiness for femalekind — if we actually value true gender equality — we need to halt all requests that ladies turn that frown upside down. We need to do a bunch of other things, too. But the smiling thing, that’s a start.
“It assumes that I’m a decoration in your life, an ornament, here to give you pleasure,” says Marina Sima-Snover, an employee at an Old Market restaurant and the mom of a 4-year-old girl. “But I’m not a pretty little speck floating around in the world, for people to gaze at and tell me what to do with my face.”
At this juncture, I feel it necessary to reveal two things about myself, one good and one bad.
Good: I have never once asked a woman to smile. Not a random woman on the street and not my wife, Sarah. The very idea of walking by a complete stranger and telling her “you should smile” is bizarre to me, as odd and unsettling as the idea of striding up to my friendly mailman and slapping him across the face.
Bad: Until pretty recently, I had no idea that “Smile!” was a thing that happened in this world. I remained clueless until one day in 2013, when I was walking with Sarah and our friend Erin. Erin began to tell a story about a stranger who had commanded her to smile, and how it made her mad. “What?” I said. Erin and Sarah both shot me bewildered looks. Then they began to tell me one “Smile!” story. Then another. Then another.
I felt like I had just learned that Santa Claus isn’t real. Instead, Santa is a white-bearded creeper standing on a street corner, commanding my female family and friends to grin when I’m not around.
So to learn more — and to try to change the nagging reality that I live in a man bubble — I began to ask women about it. Co-workers. Friends. Family members. Then the women quoted in this column.
By my count, I have talked to 19 women about “Smile!” All 19 said it has happened to them. Most said it happens regularly. All 19 said they don’t like it. In some cases it’s simply grating. In other cases, it carries a vaguely menacing undertone — fear is a main reason women do force a smile, women told me.
Most depressingly, all 19 women I spoke to considered it a fact of life, part of the tax that women must pay. And here I am, drifting through days during which no one ever requests that I change facial expression.
“Fifty percent of the population has this experience that the other 50 percent has been almost completely shielded from,” says Sofia Jawed-Wessel. “That’s nuts.”
Jawed-Wessel, a UNO professor who teaches and researches human sexuality and public health, describes the majority of “Smile!” interactions as “benevolent sexism.”
Sure, once in a while, it’s simply a human telling another human that life isn’t so bad, she says. But much more often, “Smile!” is a genteel, almost patriarchal way to seemingly compliment a woman while keeping the gender hierarchy in place, she says. The hierarchy that says it’s a man’s world and women are here to look good in it.
When Jawed-Wessel was a teen, she used to force a smile in response. She would apologize, too, and feel bad about herself for reasons she couldn’t articulate.
Now she doesn’t smile on command, even though she’s risking the possibility that the benevolent sexism will turn into something worse — the hostility often reserved for women who refuse to accept gender norms.
The problem isn’t one man asking you to smile, she says. The problem is that this happens to women once a year, or once a month, or once a week. It becomes a drumbeat that’s difficult to ignore.
“Some days I’m able to shrug it off,” the professor says. “There are other days where it derails the day.
“Then, I can be a professor, have a Ph.D., do all these different things, and at the end of the day the man who sees me can tell me to smile, and then none of that stuff matters. And I’m just a sex object.”
When I talked to women about “Smile!” the conversations tended to veer into darker territory. I heard about a sharpened umbrella used to protect a teenage girl from an adult stalker. I heard about a man in the Old Market who drunkenly tried to hit on a woman walking to her car after work. When she rebuffed those advances, the man called her poor. And dumb. And also fat.
I heard about women being followed at night, about catcalls screamed out of passing car windows, about constant workplace sexual harassment.
And I have for years now witnessed the treatment of my spouse, World-Herald food critic Sarah Baker Hansen, who has been called unimaginably vile things online because a man did not agree with her assessment of a steak or a piece of fish or a new Italian restaurant. It’s instructive, the difference in treatment Sarah and I receive. When people disagree with me, they tend to attack my ideas. When men disagree with her, they sometimes attack her existence.
When you wade into these darker waters, it is tempting to think that “Smile!” can be brushed aside as unimportant. Nope, the women I talked to said. Nope, because it all fits together, Rosie Meegan says. Because it all matters.
To illustrate, Rosie tells me a story about when she had post-pregnancy Bell’s palsy, which paralyzed the muscles on one side of her face. A male stranger came up to her on the street and suggested that she smile — her, this new mother, this tough Navy veteran now dealing with a scary facial condition. She nodded and gladly gave him what she could: The sloppiest, most insane-looking, lopsided grin the man had ever seen. “He backed away quick,” Rosie says.
Before I can even finish laughing about this smiler’s revenge, she tells me another story — a story that wasn’t about the man, but rather a story about the imprint that men can leave.
Recently Rosie was getting ready to leave the house, and she thought to herself, “Wow, no one has catcalled me in a while.” This set her into a brief moment of panic: Am I getting older? Do I need to smile more? Is there something wrong with me? And then she realized what was happening: “Smile!” has infected even her own brain.
“That’s the problem right there, isn’t it? I realized that this affected me internally,” she says. “That it probably affects all of us.”
After talking for a month with women about “Smile!” — after a month’s education into how they view this, how it affects them — I would like to offer a very specific action plan to that guy on the street. I want to offer a bit of advice to the stranger (or the acquaintance or the co-worker) who takes it upon himself to halt women in the middle of their days and request that they curl their lips into the upright and locked position.
Stop telling women to smile. Stop telling women to smile, because they generally do not like it. Stop telling women to smile, because they are not dolls.
Stop telling women to smile, because many regard it as sexist, scary, annoying, insulting or all of the above. Stop it.