This observation once appeared on my workplace performance review: “Donna needs to smile more.”
I refused to sign it until that line was removed.
The fact that it had been included at all was galling in several ways. First off, my manager admitted to more than once putting it in the reviews of his female employees, but had never done so for a male. That he didn’t see anything wrong with this double standard – or, indeed, that it even was a double standard – only made it worse. Then there was the fact that all of three months earlier, my previous review had said I had a good energy with customers, and that my excitement about working with them shone through despite my serious demeanour. (While the word ‘smile’ didn’t appear in writing on that review, it did come up in the verbal discussion my manager and I had about the point.) But the most bothersome part of being told I need to smile more was the insinuation that it was okay to tell me what to do with my body.
Sorry, did I say bothersome? ‘Cause I meant fucking infuriating.
This happened at a company that prides itself for its inclusiveness. Its mission statement has a section on how discrimination will not be tolerated. And yet my boss saw fit to tell me that there was something wrong with my face. And his boss, who looked over all the reviews before they were presented, never called him out on it.
Well guess what? Women don’t smile all the time. (Who knew?) And why should we? Why should anybody? Smiling isn’t always appropriate. I once watched a Canadian Parliamentary debate in which a female member of the opposition gave an impassioned speech about sexual assault and the lax penalties rapists face. When her mirror member of the sitting government rose to reply, his first words were that she needed to smile more.
Smile more. When discussing sexual assault. Because when women are angry, apparently we need to be pretty about it.
The term Resting Bitch Face has become popular in recent years. Until it did, I’d never paid much attention to how often men told me I needed to smile more. I mean, yes, when it showed up on a performance review I fought it, but when customers said it I shrugged it off. It’s a tricky situation, after all. I can’t really challenge a customer about it, because many men get touchy when women fight back, even in the most gentle of ways, and the reality is that I do want to make the sale. Plus my employer wants that sale even more, and will be more likely to take the customer’s side than mine if they complain. So my response to these demands – and make no mistake, no matter how nicely they’re presented, they are demands – was to give a small smile and a chuckle while trying not to roll my eyes out loud.
Still, the growing awareness that many women faced the same discrimination in this regard prompted me to try an experiment. For about a year, I became very aware of my face. And I smiled. It was a small smile, a gentle upturn at the corners of my mouth, not a big, toothy grin. But it was definitely and recognizably a smile.
The first thing I realized was how tiring it was. I ended up limiting the experiment to when I was on the sales floor, because it took an inordinate amount of energy to maintain. Besides, that’s where I was most often challenged about my expression, so it seemed to be a smart place to concentrate my efforts. By the end of the day, my cheeks would be aching and my jaw would be tight, and I’d occasionally have a tension headache.
The second thing I realized was how much of an idiot I felt like. No matter how small I kept it, it was still fake. It was meaningless, disconnected from any positive experience that might have triggered it – a joke, a hug, a challenge overcome. No, my smile was born from negativity. It sprung from societal expectations of how girls and women should look, not from the core of who I am, and I found my self-respect and overall mood suffering.
The final thing I learned? That it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Strange men still told me to smile. As many as had before? I don’t know. It’s not like I followed proper protocols and the scientific method, so my results are anecdotal. But even if it happened less often, it still goes to show that it’ll never be enough for some people. How big a smile would I have to have to appease them? To what degree would my lips have to turn up? Do I need to show teeth? And if I do, how many people would then want me to smile less because I look like an ass?
This is a battle that women cannot win.
Correction. This is a battle that women cannot win so long as we play by their rules. So long as we keep trying to meet an impossible and ever-changing standard, we will lose. We’re too fat until we’re too thin. Our skirts are too short until they’re too long. We’re too standoffish until we’re too clingy. We’re too smart until we’re too dumb. We’re too driven until we’re too passive. And we don’t smile enough while we’re doing it.
One of my male co-workers, who is also one of our best salesmen, has the dourest resting face I have ever seen. He’s never once been told to smile more during a review. He’s also very aware of how he looks, and he doesn’t give a shit. He once told me a story of being given a sweatshirt that said, “It’s not me mood, it’s me face,” and that he wore it until it was nothing but threads.
At the end of my experiment, I took inspiration from that. Now, when someone tells me to smile, I tilt my head to one side like I’m a bit confused and reply with, “It’s my face.” I say it in a bland voice with a slight emphasis on the ‘my,’ and I leave it at that. It’s rocked a few guys back on their heels, and contributed to the occasional awkward pause, but so far no one’s begun to argue with me like they used to. And no one’s complained to my boss about it.
But I honestly don’t care if they do. Because it’s not a bitch face. It’s my face. And no one else has the right to tell me it’s not good enough as it is.