October 28, 2015

Smile, You're Beautiful...

It's a Compliment. What's the Problem?


Occasionally in life, I instruct other humans to smile. I'll admit that upfront. Allow me to be specific.

When my students are just a few weeks away from a performance and the piece they're dancing is supposed to make the audience happy or excited, I'll definitely be screaming, "Energy! Attitude! Smile!" from the back of the auditorium. They're job as performers is to make their audience feel something.

These are the only times that I ask other humans to do something specific with their faces. 

As a woman, I've encountered variations of, "Smile, you're beautiful." "It's okay to smile." "You're too pretty not to smile." The list goes on. 

Discussion of this topic is almost like locker room talk for women. We talk about it to each other, and we all get it, yet it's one of those topics that we usually only complain about to each other because men overwhelmingly seem to think it is a compliment, and how dare a woman complain about being complimented. 

Well actually, it isn't a compliment, and isn't it better that we all acknowledge it and understand why so that women everywhere can finally relax their faces? 

I think so. Here we go...

But I Don't Feel Like Smiling (right now)

A smile is not just some arbitrary expression that human faces form for no reason at all. A smile means something. A smile is a result of a feeling. This truth is no different for women than it is for men.

When people are just walking, just taking in the outside world, or running late to meet a friend, or waiting for their food at a restaurant while simultaneously paying the phone bill on their cell phone, only to discover that they went over their data usage and the bill is higher than anticipated, they probably won't be smiling. Not because they're mean people or bad people. Just because, at that moment, there isn't a reason to smile. A woman isn't going to smile while she's paying an inflated bill, just like a man wouldn't. Simple. The fact that she's a woman or a beautiful woman is not a factor in the equation. 

But I'm Not Happy (right now)

As the rest of the humans do, women experience emotions on a wide spectrum. Happy is not the only emotion that women experience, so why should it be the only emotion that they outwardly express? 

Women live real lives and experience a variety of real life events. Loss of job. Financial struggles. Family members getting sick. Parents dying. Friends dying. Fights with spouses. 

As you cannot predict what is going on in a woman's life or in a woman's head at the time that you encounter her, it is simply inappropriate to instruct her to smile, to inform her that it is okay to smile, or to remind her that she is too beautiful not to. Ten minutes after planning one's parent's funeral on the phone is not the time to smile, no matter how beautiful or not you might think a person is.

Well, how would I know that? You might think. You wouldn't. Which is why you should respect that, like the details of the woman's life, the facial expressions she makes as a result of them are not your concern. 

But Smiling IS NOT My Job

Unless you are at a photo shoot, on a stage, or on set in a role that requires you to be happy, smiling is probably not your job. 

Now you may think that it is beneficial to smile when you are at work, and sometimes it is. When you want to be welcoming, or approachable for example. Sometimes, however, it is not helpful. Sometimes smiling is inappropriate. If someone is giving you a hard time at work but you need to stand your ground, there is no reason for you to smile. Smiling, in this case, would actually hurt you. A smile is not just welcoming and approachable, but also pleasant and non-threatening. 

Being pleasant and non-threatening is helpful when it is appropriate, and hurtful when it is not. Most people would not benefit from being non-threatening in certain work situations, as this may encourage your peers and superiors not to take you seriously. 

Telling a woman to smile while she is doing her job, therefore, is not just inappropriate, but offensive. What you're really saying is, "Do me a favor and make me feel more secure about working alongside you by making yourself appear more docile." 

But What Does Smiling Have To Do With Being Beautiful?

"Smile, you're beautiful."

What does that have to do with anything? If you said, "Smile, you're happy." that would make sense. But smile, you're beautiful? There isn't a connection. 

Surely you aren't suggesting that smiling is reserved for beautiful people only? Do you also go around telling people who you find unattractive, "Stop smiling, you're not beautiful?"

What's really going on here?

But I Don't Require Your Reassurance

"It's okay to smile."

What made you think I was under the impression that it wasn't okay? Furthermore, what makes you the authority on what it is or is not okay to do with my face? 

Why did you come to the conclusion that I wasn't smiling because you hadn't told me that I could yet?

Why didn't you come to the conclusion that I was making a choice not to smile?

After all, what I do with my face is my choice. 

But I Am Not Here For You To Look At

"You're too beautiful not to smile."

It sounds like a compliment, but it's not. In fact, it is extremely disempowering. I work in technology and last week I had someone say to me, "You're too beautiful to work here." I replied, "But I'm smart enough." She immediately apologized. 

That's right. She. Women do it too. 

You cannot be too beautiful not to smile. That implies that if you are good looking it is automatically your responsibility to embrace that and make yourself even more pleasing to the outside world by constantly smiling. That implies that your purpose in life now is to be looked at. 

Granted, some people elect to model, to be movie stars, etc. and at that point it literally becomes their job to be looked at, and to be pleasing to look at. But they choose that path.

For the rest of us, we are not walking the Earth with the purpose of looking the way someone else would have us look. 

The Bottom Line

When you ask a woman to smile because she is beautiful you are ignoring the fact that she is a real person who, at this moment, may not want to smile. She may not have a reason to. She may be going through something traumatic, or she may be having a perfectly good day. Her at-rest expression may be a serious face. A relaxed face. As it is for most people. 

The term BRF - Bitchy Resting Face - is a real problem for me because it only applies to women. Where is the acronym for men with serious faces?

There isn't one, because a serious at-rest face for a man is considered neutral, not bitchy. Whereas it is thought that a neutral face for woman ought to be a smile. 

No. A smile is not neutral. Plus, it isn't good for your face to be smiling all the time. Let's avoid those laugh lines and wrinkles as much as we can, shall we? 

You may think that by asking a woman to smile because she is beautiful you are actually helping her or doing her a favor. Maybe it's occurred to you that she isn't smiling because she isn't happy and you want to make her happy. 

Still, remember that the fact that she isn't smiling doesn't mean she is necessary unhappy either. A serious face on a woman should not automatically trigger an impulse to fix a problem. She is neutral, and being neutral is okay. 

Further, telling her that she is beautiful is not a "reason" to smile. I'm not suggesting that you give her another reason, like, "everything is going to be okay," because again, you don't know that. You don't know anything about her life. And it's okay that you don't know, because you don't need to. Her neutral face is not a situation that requires you immediate attention any more than a man's neutral face would be. So don't worry about the "why." It isn't your concern. 

Please do not tell a woman that it is "okay" for her to smile. She knows that. She knows, because she has smiled before and the sky didn't fall. She knows, because she is in control of her face. You are not an authority on what it is "okay" to do with her face in any case, and implying that you have the authority to give her permission to smile is actually disempowering. It reinforces ideas of gender inequality both by making you the authority on her face and by suggesting that it is her job to be visibility pleasing for you.

Get it? Got it? It's really not that hard. You wouldn't like it if people were constantly telling you what to do with your face. It's invasive and unnecessary. 

Just let us live and carry our faces authentically, as we wish to. 

Thanks so much. 



- Belle

Ps: Currently smirking. Because I feel like it. 

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