Don’t tell us to smile. Ever. Stylist spells out why women shouldn’t have to grin and bear it
Smiling is an international language. Wherever you are in the world, a smile’s meaning transcends borders. At its most genuine and spontaneous, a smile is a beautiful thing… And at its most disingenuous and unspontaneous, it is most definitely not. Like when women are instructed or cajoled to smile – whether they feel like it or not. Just think how often you’ve heard, “Cheer up love, it might never happen”, “Give us a smile, gorgeous” or “You look so much prettier when you smile”. Now think how much it makes you want to swear, or get violent, or do anything but f**king smile.
To be a woman and to not smile, or to have a ‘bitchy resting face’ as it is often charmingly called, is, it appears, offensive and not the done thing. We are labelled difficult, grumpy and aloof. Or, to put it more succinctly, ‘miserable cows’. Lets look at the flak non-grinning women receive. Victoria Beckham is frequently held up as an example of ‘miserable-looking’ because she doesn’t smile for the cameras, her pout being declared part of a stoic branding statement (something that would never be attributed to a man). American Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s sunglasses-covered solemnity is the subject of countless caricatures and commentary; and tennis player Serena Williams went viral in 2015 when a reporter at a press conference asked her why she wasn’t smiling. She said she was exhausted, having just played a high-level tennis match – not, frankly, that she owed anyone an explanation.
Perhaps there is no better example of the pressure women are under to smile exactly the right amount than Hillary Clinton. When she didn’t smile, she was judged as robotic and non-human; when she did, she was deemed false and untrustworthy. “Because she was vying for the most powerful position perhaps in the world, her smiling was a source of concern,” says Yale psychology professor Marianne LaFrance, author of Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expressions.
This power play dynamic goes way back. A 1987 study in the Psychology Of Women Quarterly found that the absence of smiles had a greater impact on perceptions of women than on perceptions of men. When not smiling, women were perceived as less happy, less carefree and less relaxed than their male counterparts. Like Clinton, women were evaluated far more harshly than the males around them.
“Non-smiling women are criticised and chastised,” says LaFrance. “There are two dimensions on which we tend to evaluate people. One is: are they competent, are they smart? The other is: are they pleasant? It is easy for men to be judged as both competent and pleasant. In men, you could be one, or both, or neither, but they are seen as unrelated to one another.
“So men can be competent and warm. Women can’t be. Often women who are judged to be particularly powerful, or smart or capable are also seen as less warm, less friendly, less agreeable.”
And the world at large can’t seem to handle that.
“An ex-boyfriend once told me his father had said to him, ‘I really like Gemma but she looks like such a bitch when she doesn’t smile.’ This was 21 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it.”
“I was told to smile by the sales assistant who sold me the black dress for my mother’s funeral.”
“Last summer I took part in a Facebook Live video from a work event and someone wrote in the comments section: ‘Tell the blonde woman to cheer up.’ It’s a very belittling, dismissive thing to hear. And that was from another woman.”
“At a three-month appraisal at a former job, my boss gave me some ‘constructive criticism’: could I look happier around the office? My mum had died just before I started that job – something they knew – and yet they still expected me to plaster on a grin, as if that was somehow intrinsically linked to my performance.”
These are just a few of the experiences shared with me for this article. The way the women handled it varied from case to case: some capitulated, smiled and felt guilty afterwards. Others said something. One woman arranged her face in an ugly grimace, which her harasser declared “scary” before walking away.
Thankfully, there are signs of a ‘Cheer up love’ pushback. Last week actor Brie Larson, who makes her debut next year as Captain Marvel, responded epically online to complaints that her Captain Marvel doesn’t smile in the first trailer. Via her Instagram account Larson reimagined Doctor Strange, Iron Man 3 and Captain America posters to show them (looking ridiculous) trying to save the world while beaming manically. Her message: Captain Marvel doesn’t have to smile just because she’s a woman.
Gendered smile discrimination has even acted as the inspiration for art. Stop Telling Women To Smile is a recent art series by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who has called being told to smile “a sexist microaggression”. Her work attempts to address gender-based street harassment by placing drawn portraits of women, composed with captions that speak directly to offenders, outside in public spaces.
Some might say feminists have bigger problems to contend with than the politics of the smile, but others insist that constant “give us a smile, darling” messaging is a subtle form of harassment.
“Being told to smile is one of the most common ways in which women’s privacy is invaded in public spaces,” says Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project. “It might sound minor, but it is part of a spectrum of behaviour that normalises the idea that women’s bodies are public property: fair game for comment and instruction from strangers.
“We have received a large number of reports of these kinds of experiences at the Everyday Sexism Project, including many examples in which a harasser reacts angrily and becomes verbally or even physically aggressive when a woman declines his order to smile. This suggests it is not just a ‘harmless compliment’. One woman was shouted at and told to smile by a stranger on the way to a funeral, another as she walked home from an oncology appointment. And it starts from an incredibly young age, with girls reporting being told to smile by grown men on their way to school.”
LaFrance agrees that it starts young, recounting a study where babies dressed in green and yellow were paraded before a group of onlookers. When the infants cooed and smiled, the observers tagged them as girls; fretters and criers were assumed to be boys. The effect persisted when a different group of participants was presented with images of cheerful or angry adult faces. People readily identified smiling women as female and wrathful men as male, but they took longer and stumbled when confronted with furious female faces or beaming male ones.
Study after study has confirmed that – despite complaints to the contrary – women actually smile more than men do, and the way we are socialised as children plays a big part in this. “Little girls are praised for and encouraged to smile,” says LaFrance. “And boys, beginning at age five or so, start getting messages from peers, parents and teachers not to smile. One of the things that starts to happen about five or six is what I call the great divide: girls start to smile more and boys start smiling less.”
From a young age, girls are taught to smile nicely, defuse anger and pain, and disguise unhappiness. By age five, they are more likely than boys to smile on receiving a disappointing gift. Socially, smiling implies friendliness, making you seem pleasantly available and unthreatening. “Boys who smile too much are perceived to be [more] feminine, which is not considered a good thing, it’s not powerful.” This is corroborated by research: a 2009 study found that seeing smiles as “womanly” is a Western cultural prejudice. Smiling faces are interpreted as more feminine, while blank or aggressive faces are read as male.
Ironically, it wasn’t always this way. Historically, women who smiled too much were considered wanton, sluttish or false, which may be why there are so few smiling women in portraits (Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun scandalised 18th-century Paris in 1787 with a smiling self-portrait that showed her teeth). In the 20th century, the rise in advertising culture saw the female grin become ubiquitous as a way of marketing products, particularly domestic ones. And so, in the public imagination, the smiling woman became the happy, subservient housewife.
As the last century rolled on, women entered the workplace in droves, and office behaviour was put increasingly under the microscope. We read so much conflicting advice about how to get ahead at work: how to dress correctly, adapt our body language so that it appears unthreatening, smile more (or less, depending on our position).
Anecdotally, women report being told by male co-workers to smile more and are criticised when they do not (according to research by Northeastern University, students evaluated male professors as knowledgeable, while the female ones “didn’t smile enough”) and so to fit in, we engage in what is sometimes called “smile work”: actively grafting to appear agreeable.
Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University, says that professional environments undoubtedly hold more jeopardy.
“In the workplace there may be greater costs of not complying to gendered expectations of emotional displays than elsewhere, because women may be perceived as less friendly or cooperative and therefore less promotable than men even if they display identical emotions,” he says. “On the other hand, the stereotype of the ambitious ‘ice queen’ who displays few positive emotions suggests there’s something else going on: perhaps in some work contexts women need to actually smile less rather than more than their male counterparts in order to get taken seriously.”
LaFrance says it goes further than low-power individuals smiling more than high-power ones. “It’s more complex,” she says. “High-power people smile when they feel like it. If they feel positive and effusive and extroverted then high-power people will smile, whereas low-power people are more likely to smile not when they feel like it, but when they feel they have to.”
It’s a minefield – the emotional labour of having to stringently monitor your workplace behaviour. It’s little wonder we’re too tired to smile all the time, even if we wanted to.
To end on a happier note, at its best, smiling is good for us and our health (the movement of the muscles in your face can trigger endorphins, reducing stress and encouraging the production of serotonin). And obviously, as one of the simplest forms of human interaction, it elicits untold warmth and good feeling.
But none of us should do it if we don’t feel like it, especially if the occasion doesn’t warrant it. So while the battle over our bodies and what we do with them continues to rage, wipe that smile off your face (or not, it’s up to you) and remember: women are not here to simply decorate the world.
The smile swap challenge
Stylist’s editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski is a smiler. Editor Susan Riley is not. Here’s what happened when they exchanged roles for a day
Lisa: The day started with an overcrowded commute which matched my uncharacteristically sour face. But when I arrived in the office, a colleague started telling me about his holiday and I didn’t know what to do with my mouth. I longed to smile; instead, I resorted to ‘ooohs’, ‘ahhhs’ and ‘wows’ and ended up sounding like a simpleton.
Language and smiling are intertwined. I smile unconsciously when using positive words, so I tried less emotional ones, and by lunchtime I was miserable. No smiling and lacklustre language changed how I felt.
The local cafe tipped me over the edge. How do I thank the lovely woman without a smile? I mumbled something and ran away. Not smiling actually made me rude.
I struggled – and failed – for the rest of the day. Smiling makes me who I am. It makes me feel good, and I hope the people I encounter, too. I don’t want to be grumpy, intimidating or miserable, so this is one cheesy-grin that is here to stay.
Susan: I’m honestly not a miserable cow. However it is accurate to say that – even when bursting with joy internally – my natural face setting is not a sunny space.
It’s not intentional. But a dry sense of humour coupled with a small mouth (my dentist admits it’s a challenge to floss) have conspired against me. And so I have come to expect people to telepathically know I am warm and friendly.
Smiling wildly all day is a challenge. Firstly, because I feel pressure to smile in instances that don’t warrant it (work brainstorms) and end up feeling disingenuousness. And secondly from a muscular point of view; constantly smiling is quite the facial workout.
I did notice that my social cues were clearer, however, and that I got way more smiles back than usual, which made me feel happier and fuzzier. “I shall do this so much more,” I smiled to myself, before heading home to rest my face in front of the TV.
Images: Rex Features, Getty