I’ve always enjoyed the benefits of smiling. But it wasn’t until adolescence that I was privy to how my smile — the very expression that conveys happiness, gratitude, a sense of peace — would be used against me. I came to lament my grin because it didn’t feel like it belonged to me anymore. I’d be at the mall with my friends, en route to class, hungover and walking to a bodega with my best friend, and inevitably someone — always a man — would interrupt whatever private thoughts, conversation, or Spotify session I was engrossed in with a simple demand: “Smile, sweetheart.”
This behavior has always upset me, but this Summer, I faced a truly harrowing example of what my smile — or my refusal to smile — can evoke.
My boyfriend and I were headed to New York after a weekend in Nantucket.We had a brief stop at the transportation center. I pulled out Pierre Lemaitre’s book Alex while he walked to the line at the men’s room.
“I’ll be right back, babe,” he said.
I noticed three figures amble through the transportation center. I continued to read, and then a chill crept down my neck like an unwelcome hand on my thigh.
“Look at that pretty one over there. Yeah, that one reading by herself. I bet I could get her to smile.”
I heard the men describe what they wanted to do to me: where their mouths would go on various soft parts on my body, parts of me that made me feel good about myself up until that point. They said these things as though I wasn’t there. I felt like a cheap roadside attraction. They didn’t see me. They saw a pleasing collection of anatomical features — ones they were convinced were designed for their pleasure — as they harassed me. And they enjoyed it.
I kept my head down and read the same paragraph over and over with the hope the very public “locker room talk” would cease and the day would carry forward. Then they approached me. I sat, frozen, and my skin began to tingle.
“Excuse me, miss,” one of the men said with mock politeness. “Give us a smile.” I replayed his earlier descriptions of what he’d like to do to me in my mind.
I stared blankly and he repeated the statement, this time louder and more determined. This was not a request. His friend began to taunt me, and I managed a tight-lipped grimace. Their voices, which had been marked by controlled authoritativeness, switched abruptly to unrestrained contempt. I hadn’t done what I was told.
“Yeah! That’s what you are.”
I was shaking. They laughed at me then walked outside. The words they hissed still scurry like rats across the floorboards of my mind during wake and sleep.
My experience fielding unwanted advances by men in public isn’t rare. According to one survey, 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18 and 64 have been harassed by a man they didn’t know on the streets. And a 2007 questionnaire about harassment on the New York City subway found that 63 percent of respondents reported being sexually harassed either in transit or while waiting at a subway station. The data dishearteningly suggest a woman is more likely to have been sexually harassed than not while out in public.
Nothing about my experience felt sexual. The confrontation was designed to be one of dominance and submission. Like rape, demanding a woman to smile isn’t about romantic desire or orgasmic relief. It’s about control. It’s about publicly putting a woman in her place — and beyond common sense, there’s research to back this up. While smiling is a natural expression of happiness and amusement, there’s a darker function that smiling has served throughout evolution — and it’s this function that factors in when men demand women to smile.
In terms of mammalian evolution, the smile is believed to have first originated as an act of submission. Professor Frank Andrew explained to Scientific Americanearlier this year that: “In primates, showing the teeth, especially teeth held together, is almost always a sign of submission. The human smile probably has evolved from that.” We still often use our smile as a social cue to indicate no threat exists and as a mechanism for inclusion — like when you grin at a stranger in Target.
In 2012, Dr. Janice Porteous, philosophy professor at Vancouver Island University, spoke to Live Science about the evolution of smiles in higher primates as a response to a perceived threat of dominance and aggression. “The expression,” Porteous said, “seems to deflect the dominant’s aggression, so it’s a sign of submission, non-hostility or appeasement, resulting in the dominant leaving them alone.” In fact, a 1997 study focused on gender differences in terms of dominance status and found women were widely believed to be socially weaker than men — because of the frequency with which they smile.
And according to Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale, only 20 percent of smiles are authentic. This means that although a woman may acquiesce to a demand to smile, in no way does this mean she’s pleased about it.
This should help everyone better understand how they behave — and why they behave that way — in these scenarios. When a man commands a woman to smile, he must know that if a smile results, then it will be disingenuous. So what is the real intention? And for women, our inherent discomfort with a phrase that is often written off as well-meaning or innocuous is thrown into stark relief. For women, being commanded in public to smile is not an act of flirtatiousness or a slight suggestion to stop to smell the urine-scented flowers on the city sidewalk. The experience is neither flattering nor uplifting; it’s demeaning and sometimes even terrifying.
Smiling should be inspired by delight and happen naturally — but science, and our lived experiences, proves that it’s not always that simple.