Walking, Not Smiling

Yesterday, spouse and I went to Kezar Lake in Sutton NH, as we often do, but instead of us both walking around it, this time he brought his canoe. He took off from the inlet, after checking in with the Lake Host on the other side of the lake (the Lake Host is there to check for invasive species that could be tagging along on watercraft), and paddled an almost-straight trajectory through the marshy area — and over two small beaver dams, where he had a surprise encounter with a large snapping turtle — across the lake to the beach side, while I meanwhile walked the 3-mile road around the lake.


During the entire hour my walk took (his paddle was considerably shorter), the sound of a speeding motor boat with water-skier was grating on my eardrums like fingernails on a chalkboard. Among perhaps 10 canoists, kayakers, people fishing in bass boats, and folks in slow moving pontoon boats was this one power boat, zipping and circling around the lake, apparently heedless of the two adult loons and one chick in the water.



I watched the boat almost drive right over on adult loon. I couldn’t get the bow number on the boat, unfortunately, because while power boats are allowed on the small lake, harassing loons by being too close to them is illegal.

So dismay, anger, fear for the loons, frustration were coursing through my veins, and the noise of the clamorous power boat ringing in my ears. (I realise it doesn’t bother lots of people, but it bothers me. Sort of like the effect of Mary Hart’s voice on Kramer, in Seinfeld)

Then I watched a young (10-ish) boy in the water with a large (beautiful) doberman dog, pretending to shoot it repeatedly with a stick close to the dog’s face, then splashing water on the dog’s face. The dog seemed unsure what to do, moving away from the boy but not entirely out of the water, barking once or twice, not seeming to know how to respond. If there were parents nearby, they did nothing to stop what seemed to me like taunting behaviour. The dog seemed confused, the boy persisted, and I felt sad watching this interaction.

Then I rounded the corner,  where a slightly older man, walking the opposite direction, jokingly (I guess?) said, “You’re only halfway done!” My response and the set of my mouth was apparently not what he felt they should be, because he followed up with “Smile, young lady!”

If you know me, you know I don’t swear aloud much, but with the motor boat sound, the recklessness of the boat and the danger to the loons, the way I interpreted the dog interaction, I was this close to telling him to STFU. Instead, because I know that reaction would be unkind, rude, and not compassionate, on the one hand, and I also know it would be escalatory and potentially dangerous on the other hand, I kept walking, serious face and all, angry, downhearted, and disquieted. Definitely not smiling.

When I had earlier met this man on the other side of the lake, with no other people around, and he had boomed out “Hello there!” in a sort of odd way (I felt), I’d had a slight frisson of discomfort, and now I was very thankful I was near the beach, among a small crowd people, even the taunting boy and his lax parents, because I know that what can follow non-compliance to the command “Smile, young lady!” is verbal abuse, attempts at intimidation, or worse.

I left that encounter walking fast (-er than usual) and furious, eventually breathing normally again, eventually letting my senses take over, smelling the air, observing what was around me, feeling the road and my ligaments and muscles as I moved, listening for the bird calls through the sound of the power boat.

A half-mile later or so, I encountered this lovely Yellow Wooly Bear (Spilosoma virginica), who obligingly curled itself around my offered clover stem so I could move it off the road.


Then later a white admiral butterfly (Limenitis arthemis … there is also a red-spotted purple form of the same species) —


And this interesting fungus formation —



I realise that some folks (even some women) don’t understand why many women react so strongly to being told to “smile.” They don’t understand how it’s patronising and demeaning, this auditing and evaluating (by complete strangers!) of another person’s emotions, this assertion of a right to control someone else’s emotions or the way those emotions show up on their face.  Here’s some help for those folks:

The Sexism of Telling Women To Smile, in Atlantic: “I couldn’t imagine that my facial expression should affect strangers in any way. I couldn’t understand how I was supposed to just go about life smiling at nothing all the time. It’s pretty nonsensical. Why would I smile for the duration of a 30-minute walk?  I felt it was very much about them, not me — as if my facial expression was a reflection of them, I wasn’t a whole person with thoughts and feelings of my own, and I was put on this earth to reassure men they were adequate on a daily basis. And I was viscerally aware that this rule only applied to me because I was female.”

Men, we need to stop telling women to ‘Smile!’ by Matthew Hansen in the Dallas News : “”You really should smile,” a man will say. Or: “Why you so mad? Smile!” Or: “You’re pretty. You would be prettier if you smiled.” In this moment, Rosie Meegan is faced with a choice that nearly all women recognize, and a choice of which most men are blissfully unaware. She can smile, even though a male stranger telling her to smile makes her feel the exact opposite of smiley. Or she can say no and potentially face his wrath. … ‘It assumes that I’m a decoration in your life, an ornament, here to give you pleasure.’ … By my count, I have talked to 19 women about ‘Smile!’ All 19 said it has happened to them. Most said it happens regularly. All 19 said they don’t like it. In some cases it’s simply grating. In other cases, it carries a vaguely menacing undertone — fear is a main reason women do force a smile, women told me. Most depressingly, all 19 women I spoke to considered it a fact of life, part of the tax that women must pay. And here I am, drifting through days during which no one ever requests that I change facial expression.”

Nope, from Shakesville: “Telling people to ‘smile’ and/or ‘laugh’ is not, in fact, nice. Telling people how to behave is an assertion of ownership; it is disdainful of individual agency, a failure to acknowledge boundaries and autonomy. That auditing other people’s emotions could be considered ‘nice’ is absurd.” (She’s responding to a “Do Something Nice” campaign in Vancouver, which is why she keeps using the word ‘nice.'”)

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” street art project: “I am not here for you.”


I have male friends (and a few older female friends) who sometimes make it known that they like it (me?) more when I smile (e.g., if I post a non-smiling photo on Facebook, I usually get at least one “Where’s that pretty smile?” or “I’d rather see you smiling” comment). I’m ambivalent about that — when it’s actual people who know me and really might have my best interest at heart, who really might feel sad because I look sad — but my response is totally unambivalent when a stranger on the street instructs me to look or feel the way he wants me to: I’m not here for you.

Yes, being told to smile — generally by men who are only acting on what they’ve learned and internalised, who aren’t intending harm — is a minor thing compared with the kinds of oppression, suppression, violence, and the threat of violence that many people face daily. Everything is relative. But it is a regular reminder for many women that being pretty, seeming attainable and non-threatening, looking agreeable and cheerful no matter what we feel, are what’s expected of us as full-fledged autonomous human beings in this culture, and that when those cultural expectations aren’t met — when we don’t smile on command or if we respond with something benign like “No thanks, I don’t feel like it” — men may retaliate with slurs, intimidation, threats, verbal abuse, and rarely (I hope), physical abuse. As one of the women in the Atlantic article says, just being told to smile makes us feel watched and vulnerable. Being called “bitch!” when we don’t smile makes us feel worse.

A woman quoted in the Dallas News article says that though she used to force a smile in response, and apologize, and feel bad about herself without understanding why, now she “she doesn’t smile on command, even though she’s risking the possibility that the benevolent sexism will turn into something worse — the hostility often reserved for women who refuse to accept gender norms.”

I guess that’s where I am, unwilling to smile on command; it’s certainly where I was yesterday, when I was feeling dismayed by humans and our wanton aggression and destructiveness. And I don’t want to add to the culture’s already high level of resentment, aggression, and anger by rudely rebuffing a probably well-meant (or at least unthinking) attempt at encouragement; but on the other hand, I think I have a right to look and feel the way I do, without being told to change because a stranger is uncomfortable with it.

Being told to smile leaves me with no good option here — either I ignore it, probably appearing rude and dismissive; or I react angrily, which will almost surely evoke resentment and retaliation (toward me or a convenient scapegoat); or I smile or make a joke — one woman says “I’m trying to cut down” when men tell her to smile — but that seems to me a capitulation equal to smiling on command, seeking to help him feel comfortable about her demeanor — and in fact her being.

So men (and a few women), please, please stop telling strangers, and even acquaintances and coworkers, to smile. If we’re looking serious, sad, angry, upset, dismayed, or anxious, we probably are, and you’re not going to turn that frown upside down by force or by even by suggestion. If you want us to really smile, give us a reason to do it: do something kind, say something genuinely funny, or just smile at us without expecting repayment in kind.  Thanks.

Black-eyed Susans along road




  1. You can call Marine Patrol when you see boaters like that or call the Loon Preservation organization. I will see if I can find the phone numbers. I am happy that the yellow wooly bear was so helpful.

    1. Thanks, Mary Anne. I have both those numbers but Marine Patrol needs a bow number, or a good description of the boat, the operator, any occupants or skiers, where they may be staying or if they launched from a site — I didn’t have any of that. (And I didn’t have the Loon Preservation number in my phone at the time, but I do now.)

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