“If you smile, I’ll send you to the dean’s office,” my high school philosophy teacher warned me.
It was an exercise, a test to see if I could go an entire day without smiling.
I failed and in front of my peers he picked a fight and sent me to the dean’s office. A first (and last) for someone who prided themselves on being the perfect student.
And that moment forever changed my life.
A second exercise was then proposed – to base my thesis for the semester on Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person. Because, at the heart of Rogers’ work was one of the most important lessons I could ever learn.
Rogers talks about how many people wear masks. How a person wears “a facade, a front, behind which he has been hiding” often “guided by what he thinks he should be, not by what he is.” I’m not sure how my teacher knew, but he knew I was wearing a mask that weighed quite heavily upon me. One that obscured a difficult reality that lay beneath.
This isn’t unique to me. We all wear masks, some more effectively than others and for different reasons. As Rogers writes:
“In our daily lives there are a thousand and one reasons for not letting ourselves experience our attitudes fully, reasons from our past and from the present, reasons that reside within the social situation. It seems too dangers, too potentially damaging, to experience them freely and fully.”
Rogers talked about how when a person realizes they are wearing a mask “Often he discovers that he exists only in response to the demands of others, that he seems to have no self of his own…” And as Kierkegaard said this is the worst manner of being a person, to choose “to be another than himself.”
My mask was my smile. I smiled because I wanted to be a more perfect daughter, because I wanted to be seen as a good person, and I wanted to please others. I was taught that it was ugly to cry and that good little girls politely smiled. No one wanted to see someone who is sad, no one wants to be near someone who is upset. I was asked to live a life devoid of real feeling while chaos raged inside – inside my home and inside my mind.
Not even I wanted to see behind this mask. The mask protected me and gave me a certainty about the world that I could accept though it was not real. It is, as Roger points out, quite a painful process, for “To remove a mask which you had thought was part of your real self can be a deeply disturbing experience…” But once I realized that my smile was nothing more than a facade, there was no going back – I had to take it off and face the reality before me. And I could no longer conform to what society wanted me to be, someone who continued to smile.
Society Tells Us We Must Smile
Unfortunately, then and now, society often demands that we smile, particularly women. Women are seen as “negative” and “aggressive” and”mean.” Our “resting bitch faces” mocked. Our assertiveness denounced in childhood as being “bossy” and in adulthood as being “demanding.” We are told, or it is at least implied, that no one will like us if we don’t smile. It is a pervasive message that has been written about extensively in the past year (see below for a list of articles).
Most recently I was personally told that I needed to smile more and “blossom into a positive force for the world.” While there are many problems with this line of though, first I would say is that I don’t often see men told to “blossom.” And who is to say I am not a positive force whether or not I smile?
And this ties in to the fact that asking someone to smile is not only an issue with being a women in our society. It is also part of a larger positivity culture. In the past, I’ve written how harmful this culture can be to many and yield few actually positive results. And yet this culture persists. A culture that asks us to smile and to be positive and leave the “negative” behind. One that says to live in the moment thus devaluing the importance of the past. One that judges those who don’t smile and attacks them as “trolls” or that my “heart is constantly filled with negativity” because I don’t fit them mold that someone sold on positivity wants to see. Because my very real and raw emotions make another uncomfortable and they would rather look away and put down another than understand that smiling does not fix the worlds problems. In fact, I would offer that smiling creates more problems if only because if we all smiled all the time, we’d live in a pretty two dimensional world.
To be fair, as an article on USA Today points out that asking a women to smile may be out of genuine kindness, but I have rarely found that to be the case. For if it were out of kindness, why not ask first how I am? Why not learn why I am not smiling before telling me to smile? Why must you tell me to smile without understanding not only how I am but who I am?
If you knew who I am and you knew my story, you would understand why I don’t smile. You would understand that my “anger” is not related to my mental health but a fierceness cultivated over years of fighting to get by and advocating for others. That this anger may be justified and a sign of just how tough I really am. You would understand that my nature to question, to be critical, to insist we do better is not “negativity.” You would know that to wear a smile is to ask me to put a mask on and become a someone who does not really exist at all, someone dissociated from reality.
As Rogers illuminates, once a person’s mask is removed:
…he becomes himself – not a facade of conformity to others, not a cynical denial of all feeling, nor a front of intellectual rationality, but a living, breathing, feeling, fluctuating process – in short, he becomes a person.
And as such a person becomes “more aware of reality as it exists outside of himself.” This process of becoming as he refers to it involves – moving away from “oughts,” “from what culture expects [one] to be,” and from pleasing others. And it involves moving toward a more autonomous self, toward accepting that the process of becoming is one of “fluidity” and continued change.
Of course without a mask, the feelings and emotions that lay behind it can become overwhelming and scary and difficult to bear – for both the person and others. But they are feelings that should be embraced as part of humanity, as part of a dynamic and vibrant individual. They are emotions that we should bear witness to in all their complexity and depth. They are not inherently bad, they just are and they tell an important story – a story that can spark meaningful conversation and spur true change or simply convey compassion toward another.
There is great value in not smiling, of rejecting a culture that would ask me to whether from sexism or a misplaced believe in positivity. There is even greater value personally as it allows me to remove a harmful mask behind which I hid for too long and sometimes still do.
I was referring to myself when I wrote my high school thesis, saying that “underneath this “smiling” mask, this person wears a mask of shame” as I blamed myself for so many things that perhaps were the responsibility of others. I went on to assert that
To remove masks takes “guts”… It takes a lot of strength and courage to allow oneself to remove everything tat they previously thought defined them to become an almost entirely new person.
Taking that mask off took “guts” and is what led me to realize that things were not okay for me. It empowered me to leave home. Since then taking that mask off is what has helped others know when I am and am not okay and help me – in times of distress and to avoid catastrophe. Not smiling has in fact saved me at times.
So I will not smile.
I will not smile, unless I genuinely mean it and feel it.
Actually, that’s not completely true, I probably will still smile even when it is not necessarily genuine. I’ll put that mask back on to fit in to a health IT event or to hide from feelings that I want to dissociate or, as one advocate puts it, to “fuck you with sugar” because I don’t care to be anything but fake around you having decided you don’t deserve to know who I am.
But I will try not to smile. I will do my very best. And I ask that you not request me to smile.
A Final Challenge
Finally, my philosophy teacher and I came up with a third challenge that I would challenge anyone reading this to try. Do you ever notice that most of the time when you ask someone in passing, “how are you?” the reply is a smile and a vague “I’m fine thank you, how are you?” or some statement equally devoid of meaning? Why do we do that? Why do we smile at each other and move on? Why can’t we acknowledge our real feelings, let down that mask for a moment – to ask with sincerity and to respond with the truth?
The challenge is to do just that, when someone asks you “how are you?” to respond with sincerity and truth and to ask the other person with that same sincerity and truth how they might be. See if you can see behind a mask they may be wearing and connect to the person behind it. If they are sad, let them have their sorrow – which can be a gift of trust they let you see. If they are angry, try to understand where it comes from. If they are scared, give assurance. Do not judge their emotions as negative or bad. Do not stigmatize their emotions by assuming they come from mental illness.
Bear witness to the person and allow them to be just that – a person, messy and fragile and complicated. And do not tell them to smile.
In fact, do not tell yourself to smile if you don’t feel it.
It’s okay not to smile.
So I won’t.
I won’t smile.
Dedicated to the teacher who taught me not to smile. Thank you.
Update 5/5/17: I’m adding a link to this article entitled Millennials Are Embracing Anger — And That’s A Good Thing. I think it speaks to the above in the way that I discuss how society pushes women to smile and the culture of positivity. “Negativity” and anger are seen as bad emotions, ones we shouldn’t have. In my case it is often pathologized, attributed to my mental health diagnoses – denounced and dismissed rather than respected. Anger to injustice, anger that is needed to pursue change both inside and out, is an emotion that I will not cover up with a smile because someone thinks I am not positive enough. In the post, you can read about how “Anger is a positive emotion — it motivates us to do something,” according to “Dr. Jeanette Walley-Jean, an associate professor of psychology and director of integrative studies at Clayton State University who has written about the “angry black woman” trope.”” And she’s right, the emotions behind the smile can be more positive than any smile, more authentic and meaningful – if society will let them.
A few articles from the past year on telling women to smile, many of which stemmed from how we treated Secretary of State Clinton:
Samantha Bee on Full Frontal: Advice She Didn’t Ask For
The Atlantic: The Sexism of Telling Women to Smile: Your Stories
The Huffington Post: It’s Important For Men to Understand That They Need To Stop Telling Women to Smile
USA Today: Why you shouldn’t tell a woman to smile