A ranty, funny, dead-serious intersectional feminist blog.

Stop Telling Women to Smile

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 6.51.16 AMThe title of this post is the name of a street art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh aimed at raising awareness in men that street harassment is not ok, and in women that it’s perfectly acceptable to wish–and even to insist–that men would not demand their attention and energy all day, every day, every time they walk down the street.

If you’re a woman, there’s a good chance you know what I’m talking about–although I’m perfectly aware that not all women are bothered by this. When I first got boobs, I was flattered by the attention. It took years to realize how exhausted I was with parrying advances all day, every day. When I tripped over this project on Facebook, a woman claiming to be a therapist had gone from disagreeing to outright trolling, so intense was her need to convince everyone present that not only was asking women to smile not harassment, but that anyone who thought it was should obviously just sit the fuck down and stop talking. So, male or female, just in case you don’t get what the issue is, here are some hypothetical examples. We’ll start with an easy one:

Imagine you’re at a social event and you’re introduced to a gentleman by the name of Dan Bond.  You say the first thing that pops into your head: “Bond. Dan Bond.” Dan gives you a look somewhere between patronizing and withering and says, “Congratulations. You’re the first person who’s ever said that.” If you’re like most people who recognize social signals, you probably feel a bit sheepish. Your aim was to be clever, and you whipped out the one line that was certain to irritate. And if you had any designs on Dan as a friend, business partner, or lover, you’d better hope you’ve got some better lines in your pocket, because at this point he’s is looking for the nearest exit and hoping you don’t follow him.

Now imagine how exhausting it might be for the nth man to say as you walk down the street: “Smile!”

fazHere’s a better one: Guys, imagine you’re walking down the street and seven out of ten men you see are a foot or more taller than you are and outweigh you by fifty to a hundred pounds. Imagine these guys take steroids, so that weight is all muscle, where yours is not. Now imagine that, as you walk, you’re aware of their eyes on you and the lewd comments they make, the whistles, the remarks about your body, what they’d like to do to you. Or maybe they just insist on your attention. Maybe they just tell you to smile. And another one does. And a third. And sometimes you can get past them without incident, and other times, if you don’t respond the way they hope you will, they shout insults after you.

This is what women deal with all the time, walking from home to the bus stop or from the bus stop to the office. In between the wolf whistles and the stares and the lewd gestures and critiques of our looks, is the constant insistence that we present ourselves at our pretty, perky, man-pleasing best. “Smile!” They cry. “Smile!” They exhort. “Smile!” They command, as though our faces are theirs to mold. As though our faces don’t please them as they are. As though it is our duty to paste fake grins upon them on demand even though all we really want to do is get past this fucking gauntlet and get to work.

Most of us are all for friendly conversation when the conditions are correct. But as social beings, we learn to interpret signals that tell us when the other person is open to conversation. Men do not, as a rule, insist on the attention of other men walking down the street. Men (and women) working construction sites rarely, in my experience, insist that men walking by stop and talk to them, respond to “compliments” on their appearance, or smile. And yet for some reason, some men believe that a woman is obliged to be polite when they do ignore the signals that say “I’m on my way somewhere and I’m not even looking at you so please, let me be” and demand her attention. And that’s what Stop Telling Women to Smile aims to change.

From Tatyana’s website:

The project is saying that street harassment is not okay. That feeling entitled to treat and speak to women any type of way, is not okay. That demanding a woman’s attention is not okay. That intruding on a woman’s space and thoughts is not okay. That women should be able to walk to the train, to the grocery store, to school – without having to cross the street to avoid the men that she sees already eyeing her as she approaches. That making women feel objectified, sexualized simply because they are women, is not okay. That grabbing a woman’s wrist to force her to speak to you is not okay. That requesting for a woman to “smile for you” is not okay – because women are not outside on the street for the purpose of entertaining and pleasing men. That it’s quite possible women are wonderful, happy, intelligent human beings that simply want to move through out the world comfortably and safely while wearing their face however the hell they want to.

Another project I recently learned about is They Know What They Do, by a young woman named Shreya living in Calcutta. Shreya photographs men who harass her (known as “Eve Teasing” in some countries) on her way to and from work.

There are certain structural privileges that work in the favour of the perpetrators of street sexual harassment, whether the non interference of spectators, or active participation of friends, but most of all, the assurance and continual affirmation of their own gender-based privileges by sociocultural norms. With my camera I thought I could strategically intervene within some of these processes that work against me.

street harassers, calcutta

via The Banjari Manifesto

I’d like to arm women like Shreya with hidden video cameras so they can film the actual harassment they experience and show it to the world. I’d like to see Stop Telling Women to Smile posters go up in every city in the world where women deal with street harassment. I’d like to see the term “Eve Teasing” (which can include assault) abolished and the crime of street harassment and assault taken seriously worldwide. And I’d love it if you would all work with me to make all this positive change happen.


My Streets, My Body: How street harassment impacts my weightloss, my eating habits, my body
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.

50 responses

  1. I see it as them exuding their control over you. “I can make you smile.” Well, not me you can’t. I am the only person who decided if and when I smile.

    March 22, 2015 at 5:44 am

  2. HowDareThey

    I always hated when complete strangers snapped at me to smile. It was as if they were CORRECTING me or something.

    November 26, 2014 at 6:49 pm

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  4. Whether it’s a random guy on the street, a co-worker, a friend, or one of the friendly old people at church I can’t stand it when people tell me to smile. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that people don’t tell men to smile nearly as often as they tell women. I also started to look at all that so-called inspirational crap like, “A strong woman/person hides their pain under a smile,” “It takes more muscles to frown than to smile,” “If you smile you’ll feel better,” and my personal favorite from Pinterest, “Smile, you’re designed to,” after I read The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo. It’s an amazing book about a guy who, as a result of inflicted childhood disfigurement, can’t not smile and grows up unable to express his emotions, wants and needs. I always relate it to the “smile, baby,” street harassment because I realize that if he were La Femme Qui Rit his/her story would still be sad, but not nearly as strange.

    October 15, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    • Yeah, I find it invasive no matter who is doing it (though I know not everyone does). I know the intention isn’t always the same, and I try to keep that in mind, but it’s still irksome. I’m relaxed, and then I’m not. If you want me to smile at you, smile at me! I can seldom resist an authentic smile.

      October 16, 2013 at 11:02 am

      • The only time when I think it’s ever acceptable to tell me to smile is if you’re taking my picture. Otherwise either give me a reason to smile (like as you said, smile at me or give me a GENUINE compliment) or accept that I just don’t feel like smiling.

        October 16, 2013 at 2:24 pm

  5. freespirit424

    Great post Rosie. I haven’t had these kinds of problems for years, but when I lived in Barbados it was really bad. There would be times the men would literally walk along side me or ride their bikes makings sexual innuendos, rubbing their crotches etc I learned very early on from my Bajan girlfriends to say, right in their face, with proper accent…..go fuck yur mudder and that would have them backing off immediately. The sad part is that a lot of the women there like it and expect it. I would try and have these great feminist discussions, and the women would think I was crazy not to ‘like it’ when some guy was hitting on me and talking rude. A lot of it is cultural.

    June 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

  6. Edi

    I guess I will never get it – women get indicators of attraction from men almost everyday and everywhere, and suddenly they don’t like it. I would really like to experience something like that – being complimented on my looks by total strangers. Well, that’s a pure vanity, but what’s so bad about getting information that you’re attractive? I’ve heard hundred times, when some random female friend of mine was happy, because some stranger in the streets told her, that she’s cute. You know when was the last time a woman told me I’m handsome? Few weeks ago – and it was my grandma :)

    June 27, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    • This isn’t a “suddenly women don’t like it thing.” It’s a “finally women are talking about it” thing.

      You know, there was a time when I didn’t mind it because it was an occasional polite comment from someone and yes, it can be nice to be told you’re attractive. The problem happens when a) you can’t walk down the street without men demanding your attention, and b) you realize that in many cases, if you don’t respond positively to the attention, the “positive” attention can turn negative in a heartbeat. I don’t expect men to understand what that’s like, but at least understand that you can’t truly know what it’s like to be a woman in this world.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting.

      June 28, 2013 at 9:56 am

  7. Great post as always Rosie, my boss at work tells everyone to smile but I really think he is just trying to raise morale at work :). I always do my best not to make people feel uncomfortable but I do so love to talk. I just can’t understand how others can’t see the obvious physical signs of someone wanting to be left alone and to just leave them be..

    May 13, 2013 at 7:11 am

    • Thanks, Ryan. Part of the problem is not seeing the signs, and part of the problem is feeling entitled to ignore them and proceed anyway because “I’m a guy and you’re pretty and I want you to talk to me.”

      May 13, 2013 at 8:13 am

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  10. Reblogged this on thejamborine.

    April 3, 2013 at 4:02 am

  11. Diane U

    That is one of my most hated phrases. It never fails to make me furious. Luckily, I must have a Viking shieldmaiden in my background because I’ve been able to snarl something and have them back away. And now I’m an old white haired lady so they pretty much leave me alone.

    April 2, 2013 at 9:37 pm

  12. josh

    Even as a guy, this has happened to me a few times. I don’t understand the desperate need that some people have to exude (and ensure that you exude) emblems of joy.
    The weird things that certain men do and/or say is an embarrassment to our entire gender, and I would like to formally dissociate myself and a large portion of my fellow man from these idiots.

    April 2, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    • I’m surprised to hear that you’ve experienced this, Josh. Was it random people or friends/acquaintances? Thanks for chiming in!

      April 3, 2013 at 9:59 am

  13. Lia

    I loved reading this. This happens to me all the time and whether I ignore them or yell something back, I’m always left thinking that, in the end, there’s nothing I can really do about it. I could never come up with some course of action that I really felt would lead anywhere. That’s why I love the idea of the posters. Maybe they won’t have an effect on the amount that men do this, but at the very least they’ll make women feel a bit more self-assured everytime they walk past one of the posters themselves. I’d love to have some in my neighborhood! Thanks for writing this!

    April 2, 2013 at 3:45 pm

  14. Man is this GIANT problem for me….it’s a miracle I haven’t pepper sprayed some jerks for this I swear…I often hang out in the college town beside me, a town full of self righteous failed-to-be-enlightened children whose mommy’s and daddy’s are paying for them to drink their education away…As a woman this is one of the things on the top of my list. As a spoken word artist and poet…it’s something I’m literally writing about right now after reading this article, I’m too heated! Thanks for the post!

    March 31, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    • So glad to hear you’re writing about it! I’d love to see what you come up with.

      March 31, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      • At this rate I should be done this piece by tonight haha I’ll have it up on my writing Facebook A.S.A.P…I’m thinking of performing this piece at my next reading on Friday as well! http://www.facebook.com/bfelling

        March 31, 2013 at 5:42 pm

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  17. Lynn

    this is exciting to read all comments…so valid…happened to me a lot in my youth as my figure was ample s and boys/men felt they had a right to constantly stare or comment…
    65 now, my biggest pet peeve are women and men who call me ‘dearie’ or ‘honey’ …as if at my age I’m just a cute old lady, helpless, no longer useful or worthy of respect. Elder bashing I call it.

    March 30, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    • Ugh. I’d better get some comebacks ready for when that starts happening to me. Ageism is unfortunately not something most people are aware of. I will look for ways to cover it here. Thanks, Lynn.

      April 1, 2013 at 8:13 am

  18. There is little that’s more annoying than being told by a stranger to smile when you’re already not in the mood to smile. Other than examples like the well-meaning older man mentioned in the comments, I think it’s almost never appropriate. Women rarely tell other women to smile on the street. When men do it, it’s patronizing and an invasion of privacy.

    March 30, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    • Yes.

      Someone told me they just look them in the eye and say, “My [relative/pet] just died.” I think I might adopt that strategy.

      April 1, 2013 at 8:10 am

  19. I totally agree with what you have said. there’s some days that if a man said something to me randomly I would smile back or say morning or something along those lines, but only if i feel like it. The other day I was on my way to work, it was freezing and i was tired and 3 workmen in a pack started shouting ‘cheer up love’ ‘give us a smile’ and when I didnt look impressed I got ‘get your tits out’ and ‘I’d give her one’ now I was not flattered by this in the slightest and if i’m quite honest I felt abit threatened. i was on my own and there was 3 of them and to me I just did not feel comfortable with the situation. I have quite a big mouth on me and there is always the chance where I will shout back if I get heckled but I’m glad on this occasion that I just carried on walking because it could have lead to all sorts of bother. Occasionally a well timed chat up line 1 on 1 in a comfortable environment is nice and I will respond and if i’m in a cheery mood I’ll have a bit of banter with workmen but there are some times when for me it just crosses a line. xx

    March 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    • You had every reason to feel threatened. This is what a lot of people don’t understand because they haven’t experienced the escalation from “friendly” rude comments to angry ones. Bother, indeed. Some women report having men grab them by the arm and stop them if they don’t get the response they want.

      Someone on Facebook took issue with the “7 out of 10” in my analogy, but construction sites (and areas of cities where a lot of construction is in progress, i.e. multiple sites) can be that bad.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

      April 1, 2013 at 8:08 am

  20. woahbamalam

    I have gotten this pretty much every day of my life. If I’m not on the street, I’m in a bar, or at work.. It is exhausting. I’m ever so sorry that my face isn’t presenting the correct amount of sunshine for you right now, maybe I’m just minding my own business, getting from a to b, or maybe your presence isn’t enough to make my face burst with pure ecstasy and joy. I have a grumpy face, I’m very happy inside. Step off.

    March 29, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    • Yes! My mouth naturally turns down a bit at the corners. I’m not necessarily unhappy, just relaxed. Until some asshole insists that I smile…

      March 30, 2013 at 8:14 am

  21. Loved all of it, especially this part.

    “In between the wolf whistles and the stares and the lewd gestures and critiques of our looks, is the constant insistence that we present ourselves at our pretty, perky, man-pleasing best. “Smile!” They cry. “Smile!” They exhort. “Smile!” They command, as though our faces are theirs to mold. “

    March 29, 2013 at 7:24 am

    • Thank you! :D

      April 1, 2013 at 8:03 am

  22. As a bartender, I hear lines like these all the time. And when I don’t entertain the guys that say them, they get all pissy. And I’m like, “Dude, I can refuse service to anyone. So either take your service that I’m being nice and stop telling me to ‘smile’ or get the hell out.”

    I LOATHE it when some guy who has been a dick to me then asks me to smile. It’s pathetic. They say “service comes with a smile.” And sometimes I’ve responded, “ya know I am packing heat right now and I also have a stun gun, my service can come with those too.” It’s what I hate about the service industry, its bad enough people sometimes barely tip, but also they just ‘expect’ me to bend over backwards to do stuff for them. Sorry. Isn’t happening.

    Loved the post :)

    March 29, 2013 at 3:13 am

    • Oh, God, I can’t imagine doing that job, but I think you handle it brilliantly! Thanks so much for being here. :)

      April 1, 2013 at 7:59 am

  23. Reblogged this on maha's place.

    March 28, 2013 at 6:41 pm

  24. The thing is that it’s so threatening. Anyone on Twitter can look for #ladculture for examples of similar behavior in the UK.

    March 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm

  25. Jo Oldenburg

    Lovely post, and I recognise a lot of it.

    Like Shreya commented above, it’s also terrible how people who confront sexist comments are made out to be the problem, instead than the ones who said something sexist in the first place. When people confront those that make comments, they are often told that they shouldn’t be so ‘uptight’, that it was a joke and that the other person just was trying to be ‘nice’. Which further neutralises sexism, and makes people less likely to respond because they feel that they are overreacting. So I was really glad when I found this blog post :)

    I’ve written about this issue on my blog as I never know how to respond to sexism or power tactics. Normally, I try to confront it but I’m often left feeling that I’m overreacting, even though I know I’m not. I would be really interested in hearing what experiences you have, and how you respond to it.

    March 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm

  26. This is brilliant. This is so passionately rational an argument. I love it. Thank you.

    March 28, 2013 at 9:19 am

    • Thanks, Zach. I very much appreciate the feedback and support.

      March 28, 2013 at 11:59 am

  27. Hey Rosie, lovely post, and thanks for the mention. There’s been concerted effort going on in India for decades to abolish ‘eve teasing’ as a term of reference for everyday gender-based violence against women, trans*persons, members of the queer community, and also men who don’t embody non-hegemonic masculinity; I’ll send you some links to work much older than mine, from much more experienced women.

    I’ll discuss this idea of a hidden camera with some of my comrades here; as you know, this was a one-off concerted effort to figure out what would happen if the gaze was returned with the aid of a camera.

    I got some backlash on the internet from people who constructed this as a ‘sting operation’, primarily meant to shame hapless men I had photographed and then claimed were harassing me. Some very interesting things have emerged from this tiny little thing (which as I’ve mentioned to you before was in its execution, and some of its aftermath, extremely exhausting) and I suppose I should write some more about it.

    The whole thing still makes me uncomfortably ambivalent because while I get angry at the individual men who harass me, I also recognise the phenomenon as a pattern within larger concentric circles of violence and power.

    I think I’ll have some long conversations about this with people whose politics and judgment I empathise with: through this and more writings about this, perhaps the ambivalence will go away and strategies to complicate the whole dialogue will emerge.

    I guess this last point is my desire at this time, to shy away from simplistic binary ideas of gender and gender-based violence, to complex understandings of the issue. Also, I’m really with you about the idea for the posters. Images are powerful, we are fed so many all day everyday, and counter-images could be a useful strategy for direct action.

    Much solidarity across the seas. xx

    March 28, 2013 at 9:11 am

    • Shreya–thanks so much for stopping by and providing some additional perspective. I’m looking forward to watching you take the issue apart on your blog and learning from your efforts. <3

      March 28, 2013 at 11:58 am

  28. “Women do not owe you their time or conversation”

    I love it! This is so true. I can’t tell you how many times I have been made to feel guilty because I don’t want to have a conversation with a stranger that sits next to me on a bus and opens up with some flirtatious small talk. Usually I do absolutely everything in my power to look as occupied and busy as possible when someone sits next to me on public transportation.

    March 28, 2013 at 8:48 am

    • Been there! It’s a good reason to carry earbuds, even if you’re not listening to anything. Sad that we have to come up with strategies like that.

      March 28, 2013 at 11:56 am

  29. Is something I hate, walking down the street & hearing.. “Och go on, gie us a smile!” My usual retort is “Fall on your face & give me a reason!”

    I don’t get the whistles or catcalls anymore, don’t fit the required dimensions these days, lol. But being told to smile is still as common as ever!! Like I’m not presenting the correct image!! Well screw that, if I wanna look like I’m ready to kill someone, or have swallowed some lemons or even if I have no expression at all….. Tough tahoulas!! :)

    It can though, on occasion be meant as a harmless attempt of consolation!! One wee auld man who could barely stand on his own, offering me his seat on the train when I was heavily pregnant & fit to burst.. “Just smile” he told me… “Sometimes it really does make it all seem better!!”

    March 28, 2013 at 7:31 am

    • I agree, that’s a totally different case. Thank you for reading. :)

      March 28, 2013 at 7:36 am

    • I wish I had written this. I WISH I HAD READ IT AND KNEW HOW TO DEAL WITH ALL THAT HARRASSMENT25 YEARS AGO. Its still true, that if you dont acknowlege, or give them what they want (attention) there is the possibility of violence.

      September 1, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    • Jane

      Love your retort. That is awesome. Very impressed. May use that.

      December 3, 2013 at 4:29 pm

  30. The reason most of us just put up and shut up is fear of escalating that attention into violence. Sad but true.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:16 am

    • Absolutely. It’s one of those truths that’s difficult to convey to someone who hasn’t been there.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:38 am

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