A Response To The Man Who Told Me To Smile

DC spring man, what a time to be alive.

Shed your coat, burn your socks, and smell those cherry blossoms, DC spring is right around the corner! The time for outdoor brunching is nigh! The tourists are printing off their metro maps! Barack Obama is breaking out his short sleeved polos! Welcome back, Spring, you beautiful season you.

Oh right! And women, don’t forget! You’re a woman! You’ll know officially as soon as you slip on that sundress and some guy walks up behind you and whispers into your ear and lets you know how great your ass looks.

You’ll be reminded that you’re just a woman when you’re waiting for a friend outside of CVS and a charming old man says “sexy..sexy legs”

Or maybe you’ll know while you’re on a run, and a car full of men slows down and stares pointedly at you, and then one of them whistles.

Or maybe you’ll remember how feminine you are when you’re walking to the metro, and some guys start a conversation behind you. Saying something about “Too bad you can’t do that, it’s illegal” and “I see you pulling your skirt down, maybe you should wear something else if you don’t want me to comment” and “WOMEN belong to MEN that’s how God intended” then following you for a whole block while you run down the escalators to a crowded metro station where you can catch your breath and call your Mother because you have never felt so exposed in public.

Springtime, right?

At the risk of horrifying my parents, in my four years here in DC the examples listed above are just a handful of the stack of experiences with street harassment that I have had. And my experiences are far from unique.

I understand that what I am writing about might seem petty, and on a level, it is. I am a white woman, and therefor experience privileges that my female friends of color don’t have and cannot experience because of societal structures in place. I am also privileged to have been born into a middle class family in the western world, and that, I recognize, is a virtual lottery ticket. However, I also know that the acknowledgment of my privilege does not excuse the behavior of street harassers. It does not mean that because it is a small problem on the grand scheme of problems that it is any less of a problem.

A few days ago, I was running back to work when an older man stopped me and told me to smile, “It’s a beautiful day young lady, you should be smiling’”

“It’s a beautiful day young lady, you should be smiling’”

I looked him directly in the eye, and I told him to “kiss my fat ass!!!!” In a Tyra circa 2010 voice.

Except I didn’t do that. I smiled at him, I diffused the situation, I was charming and polite and every sort of cute young woman I have been socialized to be.

I regret not saying more. I regret that while my stomach dropped my face reacted to what he was telling me to do, and I smiled. I smiled instinctually, a kind of survival technique I think my female ancestors ingrained in me: You don’t know that man, Audrey, who knows who he could be? What he could do to you?

And they are right, I don’t know you, you don’t know me. I would never walk up to you, Sir, and tell you to smile.

I have thought long and hard about what I wanted to tell you.

Here is my response to you:

No.

When you tell me to smile, you’re telling me that I exist to serve as your eternal ray of sunshine. You’re telling me I have to be pleasant and attractive and happy for you to look at. For your own benefit.

When you tell me to smile you’re telling me that I exist to be aesthetically pleasing for you. I am not a bouquet of flowers you picked out to decorate your life.

I am a person and I do not exist for you.

No, it doesn’t brighten my day when you tell me to smile. In fact it makes me feel quite insignificant. You are reminding me that I have to live in a world where I won’t be treated equally to my male counterparts. Where I won’t be paid the same amount as my male counterparts. Where my sexual health is less important than than the biblical morals of a Senator. Where I have to explain the definition of “feminism.” Where the standard of beauty that I am competing with is photoshop. Where there is a luxury tax on tampons. Where paid maternity leave is not guaranteed. You are reminding me that I exist in a world where I have been conditioned to comply when my male counterparts tell me to smile.

DC spring is a wonderful time. I will enjoy it regardless if I am smiling or not.

(Re-posted from March 2016 after the original was deleted in a minor computer mishap)