The girls’ school photos came home in their backpacks. My oldest has a closed-mouth smile, she’s wearing her navy school uniform sweatshirt and has her hair pulled back so that it appears she only has poofy bangs, nothing else. She says she likes her picture, that this year’s school photo is her favourite one, which for a preteen—or for anyone, really—is a win. Her lion eyes shine. The youngest’s portrait is a sly cheeky smile, round baby cheeks, with her chin slightly tucked. She’s feigning shy. Her pearly white teeth flash, and a turquoise flower she chose from the drawer is pinned to her mane, couched in a bed of curls that pulls her whole look together. She is a picture of innocence. And then our middle child, Elyse. Her smile is glittery, glasses mostly straight on her face, and she’s leaning back slightly, her shoulders pulled up by her ears as though bracing herself. Her beautiful smile is punctuated with holes where teeth still need to grow and oversized teeth in the places they already have. Her smile is perfect. She’s plucky and super cute, and behind that grin there’s a spark. Each of their photos brings a genuine smile to my face. They each smiled for the camera in their own way, in a way true to their individual personalities.
It’s a quiet and sunny Sunday morning, a chill in the air, and I’m walking my dog with Dan down the street in a huff, ranting freely about something I care deeply about, but that doesn’t pertain to the folks in my neighbourhood—so I’m really letting loose. I am angry, genuinely angry, and expressing my genuine anger to my husband, my confidante. The idea of expressing the anger on the walk is to process and eradicate it in a productive manner, i.e. non-violence. Well. At the peak of what was supposed to be my private diatribe, an older woman across the street happened to appear from her car, catching me off guard, and immediately picked up on my saltiness.
“Smile!” she calls out, with an easy laugh, hands on her hips. Smile.
Smile. I repeat the word under my breath with venom. Did she just tell me to smile?
Words cannot adequately express the rage I felt billowing out of me like a thick cloud when she goaded me on with that word, and told me how I am supposed to act. Smile. Women, especially women, are told to smile. Conceal your discontent, your ill-will, your heartache, grief, rage, sense of injustice, fear and just…smile. Well.
I threw the dog leash to Dan and stormed down the street, afraid that if I paused to look back I might say something to the woman about minding her own goddamn business that I would instantly regret. After all, she was only trying to be nice, right? WRONG. She was enforcing the rules. What rules? The rules of engagement. Society’s rules that hold women to a certain impossible standard. The rules of female decorum. She wasn’t telling me to smile for me. She was telling me to smile for him. She wasn’t listening to my true feelings like Dan was perfectly capable of doing on his own, she was telling me how to feel, to BE NICE like her. To be fake. Smile. Keep those messy feelings inside of you, tidy them away with the stupid grin on your face. Be a good girl. She was looking at me through the eyes of the patriarchal gaze, the one that seeks to control women and how they behave both publicly and privately. She was likely brought up under the male gaze and is only enforcing and preaching what she knows, what’s been stamped into her without her even noticing the pressure.
Would it ever occur to her that maybe I don’t want to smile if I feel shitty inside? That smiling would only make the feeling ten times worse. That smiling a fake smile is for the people on the outside, not the person within. That men are never told to smile, especially not when they are raging. Did it occur to her that my actions and behaviours are purely my own to dictate? That I’m pretty sure, when it comes to smiling, I was an early bloomer, and that I don’t require reminders on when a smile should occur. That being told to smile rises violent thoughts inside of me. That being told to smile makes me want to rage.
My girls know it’s okay not to smile if they don’t want to, if they don’t feel like it, if they’re having a hard day or whatever the reason may be. No reason or explanation needed. I tell my girls they don’t have to pretend to like someone either, but I do ask them to be respectful. I try to avoid asking them to “be nice” except, please, with each other, and I focus instead on “be kind,” which I would teach any child of mine. And while I may have asked them to smile for the camera in the past, I don’t anymore, or at least I’m working on it. Not because I don’t want them to be happy—I do, I very much do want them to be happy. On their own terms. Real smile, real happiness.
By the time I rounded the bend, and Dan caught up to me, the number of swear words in my head was already diminishing. I could see the whole situation for what it was: ridiculous. I will not be told how to feel. Especially not by some stranger on the street. As the walk continued, the physicality of movement and fresh air calmed me, as I hoped it would. By mid-way home, having adequately expressed my vehement disgust and other feelings of anger at being told how to be in the world, I let out a laugh, in spite of myself. A feeling of joy erupted; it was the sound of being listened to. I felt heard, which allowed me to genuinely smile and enjoy the rest of my walk with my husband.
I didn’t even need to fake it.