You should smile more, women are told, it makes you look good. This is said as a compliment but is 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, 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, retainers. What a world we live in where a 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 unwelcome intrusion when a man decides to advise me on a smile. I have a Ph.D. in the politics of smiles.
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?