Art by Brie
It doesn’t matter that I’m showing off my new Dollywood mug, that I’m standing next to the stars of The Room, or that I’m walking around the streets of Edinburgh like a Real Grown Up for the first time in my life. All that matters, according to Facebook, is that I am not smiling. It becomes an Event when I do smile in a picture, and a Topic of Discussion when I don’t.
Understand that I was in a club in high school called “Smile Dial,” which was dedicated to making new and/or outsider-y students feel more welcome and happy in those dreaded hallways. It was a Cool Thing, and I’m glad I was a part of it. I am an optimist at heart. I try to see the good in people, and I genuinely believe that life is awesome and that anything is possible. So, why don’t I look like this 24/7?
Well, I started not-smiling in pictures when I was in 9th grade, mostly because I didn’t know how to smile. I wasn’t frowning, per say, but I was giving that close-mouthed, cheek bone smile that Rooney Mara seems to really dig. I was shy. I was 14-years-old. It was a phase.
I thought my teeth were weird, or that my face was weird, or maybe I was just being Miley. Regardless of the “why,” though, it didn’t take long for people to start criticizing me about it. “Emo?” “You should smile more.” “You have such a pretty smile.” Oh, okay, thank you! You think my smile is pretty, so obviously this changes everything. That’s when the rebellious tweenager inside of me stopped hiding my teeth because I hated them and started hiding my teeth because I was being told to show them.
There was so much pressure to be pleasant, to be pretty, to be anything other than awkward or angsty or aloof. But I didn’t feel pleasant, and I didn’t feel pretty, despite all the attempts on my parents’ behalves to convince me otherwise (thanks guys). It wasn’t that I hated the way I looked or thought that I wasn’t “good enough” to be on the receiving end of admiration – I just had other priorities. Why should I derive all of my value from the way I look or the way that people perceive me?
And it’s not just me. David Letterman gave Zosia Mamet a bunch of flack for not smiling, even after she pointed out that most of her family members choose to pose seriously for photographs. “Now you’re a lovely woman. But the resisting the smile, is that, uh, controlled by your sympathetic nervous system? What is that?” I mean, you’re still pretty, but…what’s wrong with you? The Guardian wrote an entire story about Rooney Mara and her “guarded” nature, because apparently it’s news now when an attractive young female doesn’t sing a song and dance on the Red Carpet. But Mara responded, “What am I smiling on demand for? This is so weird.” And I couldn’t possibly talk about not-smiling without mentioning Hollywood’s designated Downer, Kristen Stewart. Even though she has said on a number of occasions that she’s incredibly, cripplingly shy, the media (with some assistance from the internet) have had no issue railing on her relentlessly for being gloomy, aloof, emotionless, and rude.
It’s 2013 now, and I like to think that I have a more ~complex~ understanding of the relationship between myself and the societal expectations that surround me. I understand that there is a difference between my grandma asking me to stand smiling in front of her Christmas tree and a random dude on the internet telling me to stop being so serious all the time. You know, it doesn’t take a lot for me just suck it up and smile for my grandma, and I know that it would mean a lot to her.
But that nay-sayer on the internet who thinks I’m a killjoy? The family friend who is concerned about the way I’m presenting myself to the world? I feel a tiny surge of power emanating from the frown lines on my forehead whenever I think about the comments I’m sure to receive. “You need to smile.” “How are you not smiling???”
I’m not smiling because I don’t have to smile. I can do whatever I want to do with my face, and I’m not obligated to make you feel more comfortable or to present myself as a pleasant and unoffensive and perfectly polished young adult. I’ll stop myself now before my Cool Little Sister impersonation gets out of hand, but understand the point I’m trying to make here. Understand that it’s not fun or cute for me to constantly be told how to look and feel. If you want to smile, that is 800% your prerogative. (I was pretty happy to receive my print copy of the Debut Issue of inconnu.) But I’ll smile on my own terms. Do not tell me when to smile.