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Don't Tell Me to Smile

By Caitlin Couthen Permalink

I was walking through my house, picking up dirty sock after dirty sock, being pulled in twenty different directions, and I was tapped out. All day long, tiny humans demand things from me, and it doesn’t stop. I work. I care for other people. I am human. And sometimes I am not happy about things for a variety of reasons. There is an entire emotional scale and I can fall at any point in any moment in time. So, back to this night. I am cleaning and hustling, trying to get dinner cooked and trying to keep the children from killing themselves, when my husband walks by and twists my hair. It was enough to send me into a fury at that moment. But I didn’t. I took a deep breath, looked at him, and said, “Don’t touch me right now.”

Instead of accepting my ‘back the hell off’ warning, he gave me a condescending look and proceeded to tell me why I should smile. This is problematic in many ways. First of all, the easiest way to piss off a woman even more than she already is, is by telling her to smile.

But—but—but, I’m just being nice, you say? WRONG. Women grow up in this world feeling as though all we owe the world is prettiness. Be thin but curvy. Have the perfect body but eat whatever you want. Wear makeup but not too much makeup. Get your hair done but don’t care about what it looks like. Be smart, but not smarter than your partner. Don’t be ugly. Smile. See, as boys are taught not to be sensitive and caring, women are taught to be too sensitive and caring. We should not be angry. We are meant to serve.

Well, I say down with the patriarchy because we are done. YOU HEAR THAT? DONE. When you tell a woman, especially a stranger, to smile, you are reinforcing all of those expectations. Be happy. Be here to serve me and my needs. Don’t be ugly. Above all else, don’t be ugly. Being ugly is offensive to the men that have to look at you. Men need you to be pretty so they can catcall you, stare at you, fantasize about you. When you’re ugly, you serve no purpose.

It doesn’t matter how much, as women, we give. We are still expected to give more and more. And when there is nothing left, we are expected to still give service, with a smile. It’s more than unfair, it’s demoralizing. There are times when I am allowed to feel whatever I want—and that is every single moment of every single day. I smile, hard, when my kids do something sweet and adorable. I smile when something is funny. I smile a million times a day for a million different reasons. But I also cry. I cry because I don’t feel like I am ever enough. I don’t feel like there is enough of me to give to everyone that needs a piece. I feel like there is nothing left of me when the day is done. And I get angry. And I feel disappointment. And I am allowed to express those emotions in ways that may not be pleasing to someone that is staring at me.

You have a few options here—be supportive or look away. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Women are fucking exhausted of fighting against the notion that we always need to be pretty. So again, your options are to be supportive or look away. But don’t. Don’t tell me to smile.


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