Strangers Telling Women To Smile Isn’t Just Weird, It’s Wrong

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Anna Kendrick and Kristen Stewart Resting bitch faceCBS/Summit Entertainment

‘Cheer up love, it might never happen’.

That sentence, or variants of it, has followed me around since I can remember. And no, that isn’t an exaggeration. I legitimately can’t remember ever not being told to smile by complete strangers.

Whether I’m walking down the street minding my own business or I’m in a bar with my mates buying a round of drinks, people (okay, generally men) seem to have this perception that I’m miserable and could do with cheering up.

As though telling me to smile is going to achieve that…

First of all, I should make it known I have resting bitch face and probably always will do. If I’m not speaking to someone or animated in any way, my face falls in a way which (I presume) makes me look sad/angry/disinterested/all of the above.

Basically, no matter how much fun I’m having or how happy I feel on the inside, my face just doesn’t portray it. The majority of the time, I don’t even realise I’m doing it – until someone tells me to smile, that is.

It’s not as though I’m purposefully trying to look miserable; the majority of the time I’m either concentrating on something or just minding my own business, but that doesn’t stop people from giving their opinion on how my face should look.

Resting bitch faceCBS

Secondly, telling someone to smile – even if they’re feeling sad – probably (definitely) won’t cheer them up. Like, ever.

Say I’ve had a crappy day at work and I’m heading to the shop to buy some chocolate and most likely wine – I’ve got a face on because, like I said, I’ve had a bad day. All of a sudden, a man shouts from across the street: ‘Go on, give us a smile, you know you want to!’

(And yes, this has happened).

A.) Who are you? B.) Why do you think you have the right to tell me what to do with my face? C.) What impact is my face having on your life? D.) Again, who are you?

Now I’m in an even worse mood because some random stranger has made it known that my face just isn’t acceptable for him, as though this is a completely normal thing to do. Disclaimer: it isn’t.

And this happens all the time. Once when I was about 14, walking by myself with my headphones in, a workman shouted over at me to cheer up. All of a sudden, his mates joined in and all I could hear was a chorus of ‘smile for me, love’ over the top of my music.

Isn’t it perfectly acceptable to walk down the street without smiling ear to ear?! No-one ever walks down the street on their own with a massive smile on their face; if I did, you can guarantee I’d be getting strange looks and people asking if I was alright the entire time. It’s a lose-lose situation.

More recently I was ordering a round of drinks in a bar on a night out with my mates. As I went to pay, the barman physically pulled the card machine away from me and demanded that I smile before I could have the drinks.

In all seriousness, he said:

You can only have these if you give me a smile.

People standing in pubPixabay

I was genuinely too shocked to have any other reaction than to smile meekly, before taking my drinks and joining my friends – both of whom had the same reaction when I told them what happened.

I’m not alone. Upon speaking to my friends about it, one had been told to cheer up earlier that day. Not just that, but the boy/man had actually airdropped her a message while she was travelling on a train at night.

The guy, known only as Andrew, thought it would be appropriate to write:

Hello. Smile it’s home time :)

Not only is this patronising AF, it’s invasive and just downright creepy. Sending a message to someone’s phone who you don’t know, to tell them to cheer up when you have absolutely zero insight into what’s going on in their life, has never been – and will never be – appropriate.

So please stop doing it.

Boy airdrops woman telling her to smileSupplied

No matter how innocently these remarks were supposedly said (although I’m struggling to see how), it just comes across as a way for these men to exert control over us.

Because let’s face it, they wouldn’t be telling a grown man to smile – no matter how miserable he looked. They just wouldn’t.

The thing that really winds me up is that my face is nobody else’s business but my own, so what right does a random stranger have to tell me what to do with it?

If I want to smile, I will. If I want to feel sad, I will. If I want to walk around with a resting bitch face all day every day, you’d better believe I will.

Because it’s my face.

Sassy womanNetflix

One woman who is fighting back is Farah Benis, who runs Catcalls of London – an Instagram-based campaign that raises awareness about street harassment.

Speaking to UNILAD, Farah, 32, said she started the campaign one year ago because she was fed up of women having to feel uncomfortable and increasingly unsafe when doing simple things such as walking down the street. So she decided to do something to change this.

The 32-year-old said:

The expectation to smile is put onto women by men all the time, but how often do those same men tell other men to smile? My guess is very rarely, especially in the context of a random stranger shouting it at a woman.

What are the intentions of it? Because I’ll look prettier or more approachable? Most of the time, I doubt it has anything to do with trying to improve my mood, and it 100 per cent does not have that effect.

No matter the context, you are asking me to change my behaviour to suit your ideals of what is most pleasant and a display of your male privilege.

Farah stresses that from over 3,000 submissions she has received for the Instagram page, 72 per cent of those are from under 16s. Of these, 60 per cent were catcalled when wearing their school uniforms.

Terrifyingly, 100 per cent of those catcalls were from adult males.

Farah continued:

People often say that a catcall is harmless or even a compliment. If you look at the Instagram page, catcalls can also be violent, threatening and extremely sexual.

Even if you don’t regard telling someone to smile as a catcall, from a very young age girls have had to grow up in a culture whereby men are allowed to shout (often offensive) things at us in the street.

So forgive us if we ‘overreact’ next time we’re told to smile, but the likelihood is we’re trying to find our way out of a situation whereby we feel cornered or expected to act in a certain way.

I’m sure there will be some people who tell me to get a grip or to lighten up, because all you see is a man asking a woman to smile. But just ask yourself: why are they asking (or rather telling) us to smile?

Is it to cheer us up, or to make us feel better about ourselves? Or is it because they see an opportunity to remind us of the fact we’re supposed to look pretty, be submissive and just smile without making too much noise?

Maybe they genuinely believe they’re helping us out when they tell us to smile, because if we’re smiling that means we’re happy, right?

Wrong. Most of the time, we’ll just oblige with the request to avoid confrontation and will go away feeling either p*ssed off or embarrassed about the situation.

Beck from YouNetflix

And in the rare instance we stand up for ourselves and tell them to leave us alone, we’ll be bombarded with insults and cries of ‘stop being so uptight,’ because we’re just expected to go along with whatever they tell us to do. And it’s bullsh*t.

I think what people don’t realise is what happens if we refuse to smile; if we ignore their remarks or tell them where to go, we risk putting ourselves into a situation where a complete stranger is then going to turn on us and hurl abuse our way.

So most of the time, yes, I weakly smile back at the person who’s just told me to smile because in that moment, it’s the easiest option. It doesn’t mean I’m happy or they’ve cheered me up. In fact, it’s the complete opposite.

Truth be told, I’m fed up. Fed up of the fact that, regardless of how far women’s rights may have come in the past few decades, we’re still expected in some ways to just let people walk all over us.

So no, I won’t accept that I’m making a big deal out of nothing or that I need to get a grip. I don’t. What needs to happen is women need to stop being made to feel as though they’re simply puppets that can be made to do things on demand.

It’s patronising and degrading, I’m over it.

So please, stop telling us to smile.

If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]


Lucy Connolly

Lucy Connolly

A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).