There is an increasingly widely reported phenomenon in popular culture called the “resting bitch face”. This is when your neutral facial expression looks unfriendly and unwelcoming. According to the Urban dictionary, resting bitch face is “a person, usually a girl, who naturally looks mean when her face is expressionless, without meaning to.”
Well, I suffer from the opposite. My neutral facial expression is a smile. I am just a very happy person, I am always thinking of funny thoughts and I get excited about very little things (e.g. if a traffic light is already green when I walk to it – this is a cause for celebration) so 9/10 when you see me – I will be smiling.
However, I have recently been noticing the detriments of being a visibly happy person. I feel as though it makes me appear to be approachable. Whilst this in itself is a positive thing – I love talking to new people! I live my life by the premise that strangers are just people who are not yet my friend. I pretty much assume I could be friends with anyone. Nevertheless, this perception of approach-ability also often makes me susceptible to unwelcome attention and uncomfortable bordering on dangerous situations.
As I write this, I realise that there is not a week that I have not suffered from microaggressions. You may think I’m exaggerating but let me just give a couple of examples of things that have happened over the past month:
Whilst I was on my way back from an internship in London, there was a man on the tube. I smiled at him, like I do to anyone who I make eye contact with (I once read this really moving article about how a smile can save a life. You never know what someone might be going through so I always felt showing you care even if it is just superficially through a smile was important!). Yet after smiling at this man, he kept staring at me. I began to feel uncomfortable. He moved to sit next to me and kept asking for my number, telling me he wanted to take me out that night. I said no. My stop on the tube came and I got off and so did he. He became aggressive, kept pressuring me to give my number, accusing me of not giving him a chance.
Just yesterday I came home from a long day spent revising in the library. I stop off at the local corner shop to buy peppers to cook dinner. As I’m paying, there are two men behind me. I’m smiling because I’m so excited about these peppers (they had just begun stocking scotch bonnet chilli peppers which made me really happy as they remind me of home!). These men took my smile as an invitation to talk to me (what in itself is not a bad thing).They begin asking me all these questions and as I try to leave the store they begin to follow me. One of the men tells me he is “in to black girls” as they begin leering towards me.
As I leave the store, hurrying home, willing my legs to move faster, reaching for my phone to call a friend for protection – my mind drifts to the worst case scenario – what if something bad did happen to me? I look back and still see these men nearing calling after me. I suddenly get flashes of newspaper articles with my face on the cover. And I think, what would it say? I was walking home from the library (not that it should matter) I’m wearing baggy harem pants, no makeup, a high necked long-sleeved sweater. The only skin on show is my face and my hands, it is barely 10pm…and I wonder, if anything were to happen to me, how would the newspapers twist the situation to make it my fault? How would society figure that I was “asking for it”?
And that is how I lost my smile.
I began thinking of all these situations I have been in where I have been harassed or made to feel uncomfortable. And I think: what if that stranger on the tube mistook the smile on my face for an indication I was interested? Even when I explicitly state that I am not, what if they mistook my friendly demeanour for “playing hard to get”. Lastly, I think of all the different people my path crosses on a daily basis within my standard walking route who I smile, wave or nod at – do they realise I am just being friendly?
Dear strangers, who behave in this way – you took away my smile. You have clipped my wings, reduced my vitality and put fear in my heart. Now when I walk – I look down with a dead pan face so as not to attract unwelcome attention. And whilst I do not want to internalise misogyny or accept male entitlement and normalise this behaviour. This is self-preservation. I do not want to be that girl in the newspaper.
I am sometimes brought into feminist debates where people ask my opinion on campaigns like “free the nipple” or “reclaim the night”. Whilst, I generally have a personal preference to be fully clothed rather than exposed, movements like these are so important. We live in a society where women’s bodies are policed and are unnecessarily sexualised. We live in a society of victim blaming, where we ask a woman what she was wearing when she was assaulted, essentially asking her to avoid being raped instead of telling men not to rape.
There have been countless incidents of women being victims of violence for rejecting advances from men. For example, Christopher Plaskon who killed a classmate after rejecting his prom date proposal. There was Christopher O’Kroley who killed his co-worker for saying no to his romantic advances. Also, Elliot Rodger who went on a killing spree for girls not fancying him. On Reddit, there’s even a whole subreddit called “Incels” and “Truecels” for men who are involuntarily celibate which is full of the most toxic and misogynist display of entitlement.
After every phone call home, I am told to “be safe”. And most parents say this, especially to their daughters, because they care about their children and have wonderful intentions. And I listen to them, I am safe – I try to make wise choices and avoid dangerous situations. Safety is so important but this is futile if this does not go hand in hand with teaching men not to feel entitled. What did all the aforementioned women who were killed by men do wrong? They said no. They were uninterested. They were living their lives.
So next time you question why we need feminism, after all, women can vote now? Remember that there is a girl out in the world questioning whether to even smile.
It’s just me, Dammy, learning to smile again