Opinion: Why I Won’t “Smile, Baby”

Opinion: Why I Won’t “Smile, Baby”

 It was another summer day walking home from my internship. I was sweating in my slacks and long-sleeved shirt, and the work-appropriate flats were decidedly less appropriate for the half-mile hike to the bus stop. Lost in thought, I heard a jeer off to my left: “Hey, smile, baby!”

 This still happens. This happens in Grand Rapids. This happens to me a few times a month.

 I didn’t flinch or turn to see who tossed the comment, but another voice joined in. “Come on now; don’t be like that. Give us a smile now.” My arms pulled into my sides, I looked down at the pavement, and I kept on walking until their calls disappeared behind me. I’ve heard calls like this before, but suddenly I felt myself shaking.

 Why should I smile? It had been a long day at work, and I was tired and uncomfortable. I had been thinking about the bad news that a friend had heard but also wondering what to make for dinner. My mind was on everything but my appearance.

 What makes me furious about events like this is how small and helpless they make me feel. Every woman knows the retorts she’d like to yell back, but most know that these can only escalate a situation. So instead we look down and try to be invisible.

 This feels too familiar. From an early age, a girl is taught that to be ladylike is to cross her legs, to fold her arms and to make herself compact and orderly. Not to take up space. It’s boyish to sprawl and bad manners to stretch one’s legs.

 Yet when an animal is afraid, it cowers. It makes itself smaller to show its submission. When I look down and hunch my body, I feel fear radiate off my frame. I feel less powerful.

 This is more than “ignore them and they’ll go away.” This is a bigger system that says that by nature of being in public, others have the right to comment, critique and even demand things of my appearance — that I somehow owe a pleasant countenance to the world.

The world demands enough of me already. It demands uncomfortable shoes and shaved legs and dark lashes and smooth skin. Life as a woman is performance art, and there are unspoken standards everywhere, though only the men on the street corner are crude enough to yell them out.

How can I win? A confident walk, bright smile and eye contact are perceived as an invitation that I don’t want to make. Yet my disappearing, shrinking act earns me uglier epithets. How should I act? Do I object? Or do I roll over and play dead because these men are twice my size and I can’t go on the offensive?

I walked quickly past the stoop where the men were sitting, ducking my head and hiding my face. Every woman knows the retorts she wants to yell back, and maybe mine would go something like this: You have the power to make me afraid, to make me feel less, to shrink me up and send me running. But I don’t answer to you. You cannot control me. And you cannot make me smile.