Telling women to smile is sexist

I’m not a happy smiley-smiley person, I’m just not. You’re more likely to find me deep in thought and frowning because that seems to be the natural way my face decides to rest. So maybe I’ve been affected by this much more than other women but quite often I’ll just be walking along, or standing along – in a public place and a complete stranger will whiz past and instruct me to “give us a smile” or simply “smile!” This happens only when I’m alone, the stranger is always male and he usually finishes off his demand with a “love”. The most annoying part is that there’s never enough time to roll out a satisfying comeback.

The obvious problem is that the shitty smile stranger knows nothing about you or what might have just happened to you. Secondly, being strangers their intentions can never be genuine worry about your unhappiness. Thirdly, since when has demanding an unhappy person to smile ever made them suddenly stop being unhappy? So I must question – why? and why do men, specifically, feel they have the right to tell women to smile. Why do they expect women to do what they want them to, just because they said so. The smile benefits them, they can see it not us. It’s not for our benefit – so it must be for theirs.

I interviewed a young woman recently about female beauty standards. She seemed to me like quite a happy person, maybe even one of those ‘smiley-smiley’ people yet I learned that she too was fed up of people, predominantly men, demanding her to flash them a smile. It’s not just me then, with my perma-frowned face. Maybe part of it is related to our age; the false perception that young people should be thoroughly enjoying and sucking the nourishment out of every second of their day because being young is so much fun and nothing can ever go wrong for us. I got fired from a job two years ago for not being “bubbly and out there enough”, I was told I was “young and attractive and have everything going for you” as if my age and gender placed this expectation on me to act “bubbly” every second of the day.

So maybe it’s the age thing. I think mostly though it’s because we’re women and we’re expected to look pretty and happy and there for other people to look at to use for their own visual pleasure. Not just for men actually, some women expect it too and can be just as sexist as men with their expectations of gender stereotypes. At work I tried to conform to looking conventionally attractive and ‘feminine’ through make-up and clothing but the one thing I couldn’t fake was the lack of carbonated bubble in my personality – I could not look good enough.

See article: Victoria Beckham doesn’t smile, gets called shit names for it. Would the same judgement be directed at a man who didn’t look particularly grumpy, but just didn’t smile?

Are you ‘male’, is being told to smile a problem for you? let me know, I’m interested.

Oh and if you hadn’t noticed, my smile is turned upside down to show that my lips naturally curve to create a ‘downwards smile’.

Originally posted at

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  • Daniel

    I agree with you for the most part. Smiling is something usually associated with beauty and in turn beauty is usually associated with the feminine. It generally makes people happy when they see other people happy. I have been told to smile before by women if you believe it or not. As a man I had the choice whether or not to smile and I usually did just to make someone else happy. No one has the right to tell anyone to do anything with their body.People always said I looked grumpy or angry all the time and I should smile more but I didn’t most of the time I think that there is more pressure for women to be beautiful than men to be.

  • Lyla Cicero

    Thank you this was so validating to read. I am 34 and actually I have to say this happens to me a lot less than it used to, but that may be because I am more often with my children or husband. This used to happen to me all the time and it infuriated me. I think your description of why is right on, it is for the other person’s benefit – we are not “permforming” adequately. It is indeed sexist.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I usually say something disconcerting to those people. I gave someone who said that the flat affect imitation smile once, I’m not sure why I bothered, but he didn’t like it.

  • Karen

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I get that too, and it really pisses me off. I just want to be like “fuck you, you don’t know anything about me or whats going on with me, why don’t YOU smile?” But of course, I don’t, I usually also pull the flat-sarcastic-bitchy smile too. I agree with you that is based on an objectification thing, women are supposed to be looked at! And it’s not as fun to ogle someone on the street when they look pissed off about it. But i think there is also more than that … there was this article out last summer that said that men find women who are smiling more attractive, and women find men who are angry more attractive. (obviously the article said thats because men evolved to be big manly animal hunting rage machines and women evolved to be happy smily and bubbly devoted wives). But the article does make a point, I think men have this idea that women should always be satisfied and content and never angry, or thoughtful, or serious about anything. The thinking and changing and anger stuff is for men who do important work. It’s kind of rooted in the woman-as-caregiver/happy housewife stereotype. Women are not supposed to be angry or thoughtful, we are supposed to provide love and support for men who are angry or thoughtful. And when a man sees someone walking down the street who doesn’t look like she loves everything, it throws them off. Am I being too cynical?

    Also, i used to work at McDonalds in high school and my manager was always hassling me to smile more. I quit.

  • Lisa

    Seriously, I hate this so much. It’s so patronising and I get it all the time. As if I should walk down the street grinning.

  • Bethany

    I also have one of those faces you spoke of. Ever since grade school adults, mostly men as you said, told me to smile more. One time a classmate’s dad, a police officer said, “You should smile! You don’t want to get frown lines!”

    Many years later some guy at a bar told me I wasn’t behaving and as women “should behave at bars” because I looked “bored.” He said, “This is tonight!” And I said “Yes, this is tonight and tonight I don’t feel like smiling.” The way I said it he backed off, almost as if I scared him. We shouldn’t let people tell us how to act, thanks Laura!

  • Sonja Anderson

    Great post. This topic doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Elizabeth Antus over at WomenInTheology wrote about this not too long ago:

  • Ellen

    I get this a lot too. Ugh! I’m serious by nature. My daughter has the same usual expression as I do. My mother had it before we did.

    I usually hear it at work from customers. As if filling prescriptions correctly isn’t enough. My work is incredibly stressful and sometimes requires thought. I have never heard a smile requested from my male co-workers, ever.

    • Daniel

      Well I would feel you have an obligation to smile in that case. I know many jobs where people are required to smile.

      • Bethany

        Seriously? It’s one thing for a pharmacist to be rude but a customer shouldn’t have the audacity to ask for a smile. And who smiles ear to ear every second? Not unless they’re running for election.

        • Bethany

          Btw I wasn’t saying Ellen not smiling is rude. People who are hostile to customers are one thing but we’re not automatons.

  • Grace Drake

    I get this all the time too. One week, both of my grandfathers were in the hospital and my cats of fifteen years had just died. Of course, I was feeling pretty down all week and then my art teacher told me, “You’re so pretty. Smile.”

    No. I’m going to be sad when I need to mourn.

  • arianah

    Yes, yes, yes!!! It is SO sexist and offensive when random strangers tell me to smile. I’ve been getting this B.S. since I was 14. I also think this constant need to command women to smile stems from the expectation that woman ought to be socially accommodating and open to men, to act as a “good hostess” of sorts.
    The expectation here is that women cannot be serious thinkers, who have objectives beyond presenting a visually pleasing figure to men. If, God forbid, I do not acquiesce to the demands to smile, I’m often met with a “What… you think you’re too good for us?” kind of retort. Seeing these same men who I refused to smile for on a later date, I’ve been bombarded with jeers of “fucking bitch” and the like. None of my male friends have ever had this kind of experience (although some will try to bring up some vaguely similar event to prove that they have).
    At best, it’s thoughtless. At worst, it borders on harassment and intimidation.
    The good thing is that as I get older, I can look forward to the day when strangers won’t even care about what I look like enough to fret over my facial expression. Of course, that in itself is sexist and ageist, but well….there ya go.

  • SamIam

    If a female friend or coworker is clearly feeling down, what is so wrong about trying to cheer them up? I don’t really see how this is sexism. I’d do the same with a male friend or close coworker too. How does having compassion for another human warrant being called a sexist?