If you ask women about the experience of being accosted by strange men in the street, be it men requesting we “smile” or them whistling or making lewd comments at us, most women immediately relate.
This behaviour has become so normalised that we have almost accepted it as part of our everyday lives.
But shouting a lewd comment like 'Girl, let me touch that ass' constitutes an act of aggression, whereas asking a woman to "smile" is different.
It all boils down to the archaic notion that girls are supposed to be nice no matter what. We should be friendly, quiet, chaste and in our place. Which is a place that has been carefully crafted for us by the patriarchy. Either that, or we are called the usual - “slut”, “rude” or a downright “bitch”.
After a recent read of an article on HarpersBazaar.com called “The Politics of Smiling as a Woman” on why men should stop telling women to smile, I started thinking about whether most guys even realise how demeaning this practice is.
By employing a seemingly simple request they are ipso facto exercising control over a woman’s body by policing her behaviour - her facial features.
So what do we do? Do we as women ignore or engage with these men? I asked 15 women in the office: What do you normally do when a guy asks you to smile as he passes you on the street?
Do you a) ignore him b) smile c) tell him off?
Almost all of the women said they ignore men who do that, mainly because they don’t feel safe (even in public) to tell them off for fear of their own safety. Most of these women said however, that they walk away rolling their eyes or mutter *fuck you* under their breath.
One woman says “I ignore them, but then they are usually like, ‘You mustn’t scowl like that, you look beautiful when you smile.’ “And all I’m thinking is ‘I look ugly when I don’t smile?’
One or two women said they respond, telling the guy off.
Only one said she smiles.
But why do men do this? Does it not show a desperate need for them to get a woman’s recognition? Is she supposed to stay pretty, quiet and “not scary” in order for him to feel control? While he is not threatened by her physically, he is threatened by his own desire for her to approve of him.
I think it’s about attention: they need to command a woman’s face - her smile - to sway in his favour because then he is enough.
I don’t want to take away from the behaviour itself which disrespects women’s agency, because the act can intimidate and even lead to assault in many cases. It makes women feel unsafe because it can lead to being verbally accosted, embarrassed and in some cases physically attacked.
Even in cases where women are not affected emotionally or physically by this act, when they disregard it, or shrug it off, it still doesn’t mean it’s okay.
But maybe, just maybe we can start to view this gesture as less of a need for some men to demean and belittle, but a rather as a cry for affirmation. Not so much an exercising of power, but rather a giving up of power.
Share your stories with us!