On Smiling, Or Not

A feminist call might be a call to anger, to develop a sense of rage about collective wrongs.– Sara Ahmed

Most women have had it happen to them. Walking back to the car one day after work, I am thinking about all the things I have to do, when a man stops me. “You should smile. It might never happen.” Smiling seems to be a must for women. So often, smiles are demanded of us, claimed, insisted upon. But why is it so essential that we must always be smiling? Why is the lack of a smile so disturbing?

I came upon this problem when I was working on creating a new author photo a few years ago to replace one which was ten years old. Both of my cousins are photographers; both of them have different styles, and both took me on different kinds of photo shoots. 

Photo by Georgia Roach

With my cousin Georgia Roach, I visited one of my favorite places in the world: Southerndown Beach off the coast near Ogmore in South Wales. Anyone who has been there will tell you that it is a magic place with towering cliffs, rock-pooling, a Victorian walled garden, and the crumbling foundations of a once-splendid mansion. 

We climbed up onto the cliffs to take photos, and there was no one else much around. Then down on the beach, we clambered onto the rocks in bare feet and took photographs out there by water’s edge, with Georgia providing laughter and encouragement. It was an amazing experience: so joyful because it was in this place that means so much to me, that I have visited since childhood, that my mother visited when she was a child. 

The second photo shoot was also a very positive experience, the photographer this time being my other cousin Nathan Roach (also known as Coal Poet). This time, we set up in the ruins of a torn-down factory, among broken glass, brick remnants, and the old factory floor. Still, it had a kind of beautiful bleakness, and we laughed a lot while we were taking the photographs. 

At one point, we stopped in front of the peeling paintwork of some old garage doors. As Nathan was taking the photograph, a car drove by honking its horn, the guys inside shouting stuff out the open window. I was not comfortable then, and I froze up. I don’t think that cis het men experience this kind of harassment in quite the same way, so I don’t think that they always get the feeling: being put on the spot, a tinge of humiliation, a reminder of being less-than, reduced to your presentation in the world, and anger too. It was this moment that Nathan captured, and that he liked the best out of all the photographs we took. 

Photo by Nathan Roach

When he sent me his favorite photograph, I was horrified. For one thing, I wasn’t smiling. In fact I looked angry, withering almost. I suppose that’s how I felt in the moment, and I think that anger was justified. How would it be read though? Resting b face (ugh), or I-have-had-enough-of-this-shit-already face? I could see it was beautiful – the colors, the way Nathan put it together, but it was so challenging. I asked myself, was that what I wanted in an author photograph? 

Looking at the two photographs now, I can’t help thinking that Georgia’s photograph is me as I would be if I was free, if I didn’t have to put up with the misogynist junk that comes my way so often. Nathan’s photograph represents the anger I feel in the moment when confronted with the wrongness in the way women are treated. I am very careful about anger though, and I try hard never to react in anger. Because anger is not automatically right or righteous; as Sara Ahmed says, “Feminist emotions … are sites of struggle, and we must persist in struggling with them.” 

It’s clear though that as a culture, we are still uncomfortable with images of angry women. I suppose too that I worry about the problem posed by Sara Ahmed where “Reasonable, thoughtful arguments are dismissed as anger (which of course empties anger of its own reason), which makes you angry, such that your response becomes read as the confirmation of evidence that you are not only angry but also unreasonable!” I know it is worse for those less privileged than me too: for example because of stereotypes like the angry black woman, as writers like Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed have shown. But we can refuse such stereotypes, and take our own agency. It has taken me some time to come to terms with this photograph, some time to accept that it is OK to be angry: it is OK to refuse to smile. 

Thanks to Susie Wildsmith for reading this entry.

If you want to find out more about the idea of “internalized oppression” where you internalise social expectations, please see my recent podcast for Sinister Myth with Brendan Walsh: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/sinister-myth/id1461781969

2 Comments

  1. I’m right in the middle of every privilege stereo type (gender, age, ethnicity, social etc) and I get dogs abuse for not smiling enough on photos. I smile when something makes me smile, it’s genuine, not performance, and just because i’m not smiling it doesn’t mean i’m not happy or engaged or whatever…. I just think I look goofy smiling on cue. But I get called out on this all the time, which then becomes a big old feedback loop

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