The Sexism of Telling Women to Smile

Rick Wilking / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, my colleague David Frum wrote a post defending a tweet in which he commented on the Democratic nominee’s smile during the first presidential debate. “Who told Hillary Clinton to keep smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party?” the tweet read. It had been called out in a segment by the comedian Samantha Bee, who noted how many pundits had told Clinton she should smile more—advice that’s given much less frequently to men and in much different circumstances. Readers debated that double standard in the TAD discussion group, but this was the most up-voted comment from a reader on Frum’s post:

Women hate being told to smile, and it’s only in the past four years or so that I’ve completely lost patience with it. The last time was the grocery store employee who walked by me and told me to “smile, sweetheart,” and I gave him a nasty look and moved on. No one tells a male stranger to smile; only women are expected to placidly smile all the time.

So when people critique Hillary Clinton for not smiling enough in one debate, then for smiling too much in the next, it takes us all back to those instances where some stranger reminded us we are supposed to smile and look pleasant at all times as far as they are concerned. Women are over it.

Do I think it was weird for Clinton to smile so widely while talking about certain topics? Yes. But she was told by so many people to smile and seem warm and positive, etc., etc. She did that. Surely there is another more useful critique less steeped in the casual sexism women experience on a daily basis to move on to rather than whine about this.

A second reader agrees:

An angry or serious man evokes an image of passion and determination, whereas with a woman it is seen as a sign of derangement or loss of control. I guarantee that had Hillary shown up with serious, stone-faced composure, she would have been called out for being too tense or cold and unfeeling.

I have had bosses, colleagues, clients, and total strangers tell me to smile, and when it comes from a man it grates on every nerve in my body. A bellhop once told my husband as we were riding up in an elevator that he was sure glad that he wasn’t the one sleeping with me because I didn’t “look happy.” The suggestion that a woman needs to smile and look happy or, at the very least, contented is used so frequently by men that I don’t think that most even realize that they do it, but some are very aware of its utility in deflating a woman’s self-esteem. I used to feel guilty for not smiling—not anymore.

Every woman I know seems to have a story about being told to smile. Mine involves my eighth-grade gym teacher, who decided when I was 13 that I wasn’t smiling enough in his class. Twice a week he would walk down the line of us, taking attendance, and stop in front of me. “Smile!” he’d say. “I like it when you smile!” The first few times I smiled at him involuntarily, then, furious at myself, rearranged my face into a scowl. Later, I came to expect it. I would clench my teeth as his sneakers squeaked closer, steeling my face to stay rigid and calm. Smile! You know I like it when you smile! He’d stand over me, waiting with his clipboard, until I finally gave in.

My gym teacher was a bully of more than usual proportions. But 10 years later, that sense of helplessness still comes back to me every time a stranger calls out and tells me to give him a smile. And these comments are not so different: They all fit into a centuries-long pattern of men presuming that they’re entitled to control how a woman looks and thinks, that their desire to see a pretty or pleasant face overrides whatever she might be feeling at that moment. As women, we hear this all our lives, in various overt and insidious ways, and we often come to internalize it—to the point that when a strange man calls “Smile, honey!” at me, I often can’t help but do it.

That’s why, in the first half of last Monday’s debate, Clinton’s smile stood out to me as well. As she smiled and nodded along to Donald Trump’s blustering criticism, I recognized that smile as one I’ve worn myself, any time I’ve disagreed with a man in a public setting—at work or in class or across a customer-service counter. It was the smile of someone who’s learned over years that she can’t ever appear to be angry; that the best way to make her thoughts and feelings understood is to pretend she doesn’t have them at all.

But by the end of the debate, when it became clear that Clinton was winning, her smile changed. A third reader—who agrees with the two above that “every woman has dealt with this kind of thing”—puts it this way:

Maybe in the beginning, she was trying to put up a smiling front. But after a while, that smile became genuine. You could see it happen. She came into her own as a strong woman, knowing she was well-qualified, well-informed and more than able and willing to get the job done, at the debate and as president. I was very proud of her!

I’d like to hear your stories of how smiles can translate to power: both what it’s like to be told to smile, to have that choice seemingly taken away from you, and what it’s like to smile deliberately, to gain that power back. Have you felt guilty about not smiling, as the reader above mentions, or felt that frequent demands to smile wear away at your sense of self? Have you used smiles to help you assert yourself, or avoided them to keep up an authoritative image? Please tell us: