You should smile more, women are told, it makes you look good. This is said as a compliment but is the erasure of the person & her emotions. What if she doesn’t feel like smiling? If you’re not a woman, try smiling at someone you don’t like or in a situation that causes you distress. Smiles must blossom on their own, not be demanded.
I grew up with dental issues – protruding, misaligned front teeth, overlapping canines, and horizontal molars. I knew I was ugly. Nobody had to tell me, it was in how people responded to my smile (pity, disdain, awkward looking away, mean nicknames). By age 11, I knew I needed dental intervention if I wanted any hope of a better life. “It’ll change the way your face looks”, the orthodontist warned me. “Exactly”, I said and traded all the foods a child loves for years of painful metal braces, rubber bands, mouth plates, and retainers. What a world we live in where an 11-year-old believes that her worth is only in her smile and is willing to endure pain & sacrifice for it.
I know my good angles now & how to make others interesting. I have mastered the range of things a smile can convey – polite, charming, gracious, shy, confident, welcoming, impersonal. I am a woman in a culture of “Hasee to phasee”. This is why it is an unwelcome intrusion when a man decides to advise me on a smile. I have a PhD in the politics of smile.
In my InstaStories conversation on #PeopleWeDontKnow, 2 men mentioned being complimented on their smiles. We overburden girls with an identity price tag on smiles. We never let boys/men know that their smiles matter. We give them role models that are angry, brooding & unsmiling. Look at any film poster featuring a macho hero. We suggest that smiling is only aesthetic and the domain of the female as if to smile is to not be male.
But a smile is a universal expression of all’s okay. It’s one of the earliest forms of communication we learn. It transcends the politics of gender, age and geography. Finally, it expresses joy and creates more joy. So, when was the last time you smiled just because you felt like it?