Please Do not Tell Me to Smile

 

BY ELIZABETH SCHMITT

 

Before you continue reading, let us get one thing straight: I am a nice person. I hold doors open for people, I smile at strangers, I give money to charity and I volunteer. Based on commonly held conceptions of Midwestern niceness—I am nice. Yet in the past year, I have been told that I do not come across as nice. In fact, a few close friends remarked that before they really knew me, they thought I was a witch with a b.t.

Obviously, this troubled me a bit. I barraged them with questions about how I came across when they met me and what led them to think that I was not a nice person. They came up with something along the lines of this: “We didn’t think you were mean, we just thought you were… I don’t know, really serious or something.”

Fair, I thought. I am serious. I most definitely take school seriously and I try my best not to do anything halfway. Yet, I was not sure what made me give off the ‘serious’ vibe. My friends said it was my clothes (when we met I was in business formal attire) and the way that I sat and took notes. I thought that was strange. How does one take notes seriously? Evidently, it was the intensity with which I paid attention that made me come across as a stuck up. I wondered if now I would have to smile constantly while in class. And my clothes? Well, that I could not help. I am not a sweatpants person and never will be.

This conversation with my friends was eye opening for me. I understood where they were coming from and I appreciated their honesty. I did, however, feel uneasy about this new knowledge. I was certainly not going to change my demeanor just because people who did not know me got a bad vibe. I confessed this to my best friend and she set me straight. She explained that it was a good thing—a lot of women overcompensate for their serious side by playing themselves off as easygoing, fun and largely brainless. If that is not you, she said, do not change a thing.

Now reassured, I began to deconstruct the situation. I live in an insidiously sexist society, one that paints me as a cold person for my more serious demeanor. Men who are serious are taken seriously, while women who are serious, particularly in professional or academic lives, are viewed as harsh, distant and unfriendly. If I im not smiling or outwardly cheery, people ask me what is wrong; yet I have never seen that happen to a man.

The expectations we place on women to be happy, bubbly and sweet are both unfair and unrealistic. We can see this double standard in portrayal of female candidates for political office, visual representations in magazines, TV characters and commercials. To all the women who are serious people, or who have been called a certain B-word for their demeanor—do not change. Being serious, committed and intense are not negative qualities in the least. It is not your job, but society’s job, to change their perception of successful, strong women.

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