I Think Men Should Stop Making Comments About How Women Look — Especially My Daughter
By Katharine Chan
Photo © try2benice/Twenty20
May 24, 2022
Recently, I was walking my daughter to school when a crossing guard, an elderly man, helped us cross the street.
When we got to the other side, I looked at him, smiled and said, “Thank you. Have a great day!”
He nodded and turned his attention to my daughter. He smirked and asked, “It’s a lovely day. Can I get a smile, sweetheart?”
She was silent but gave a gentle nod. He pretended to be hurt and jokingly said, “Oh, ouch! I guess not today but maybe tomorrow, sweetie?”
"Smiles, especially from a beaming child, can brighten up a person’s day."
She looked away and pulled my hand, motioning me to keep walking. To be honest, I immediately felt embarrassed and disappointed in my daughter’s behaviour.
Years of being conditioned to be polite and afraid to ruffle feathers made me instinctively want to ask my daughter to smile and not offend this older gentleman. He’s merely making harmless conversation. Smiles, especially from a beaming child, can brighten up a person’s day.
But was she being rude? Or was he? Was his question really harmless?
Who Decides What's Harmless?
The question triggered me, and I started to internally debate what happened, like a frustrating game of Pong.
As we arrived at her school, I waved goodbye and my neck was hot with fury.
When a man tells a woman they don’t know to smile, it may seem like a simple and friendly way to chat with a stranger.
But what does it really mean?
I believe society conditions men to believe that women exist to serve them.
"I believe society conditions men to believe that women exist to serve them."
A woman is an object that needs to be pleasing and approachable; a smile is a label that determines whether they are.
If they do not meet that condition, a man is in a position of authority to correct and control their behaviour.
It doesn’t matter if a woman is under the weather, had to say goodbye to her family pet or lost her job, having a scowl, furrowing their eyebrows or rolling their eyes is sometimes viewed as inappropriate.
Because to some that behaviour is considered unladylike and unattractive.
On the flip side, I’ve never heard of a man being asked to smile more or act more friendly. Consequently, it creates a double standard as frowning and serious-looking men are rewarded and praised for their ambition, assertiveness and drive.
A Barrier to Emotional Development
I believe demanding a child to uphold these expectations not only makes them believe that their sole purpose is to be visually appealing but also reinforces the idea that being happy is the only way they can safely express themselves.
There is no shame in feeling difficult emotions. Our feelings affect every decision we make in life and it is healthy to experience and express our full range of emotions.
Children need to learn how to identify and manage emotions so they can develop coping mechanisms to face whatever life throws at them when they grow up.
As I see it, teaching girls to smile teaches them that unwanted conversations that make them feel uncomfortable are acceptable.
When their boundaries are crossed, they are not allowed to voice their concerns because it doesn’t matter what they think or how they feel. They’re supposed to smile, be polite and look pretty. Their thoughts and opinions aren’t valued.
Encouraging Girls to Hide Who They Really Are
When I was younger, there were a few times when random men on the street told me to smile.
I hated it.
So I perfected my fake smile.
Whenever I walked by a stranger, I would squint my eyes with just the right amount of friendliness, part my lips slightly, let my bright whites shine and turned that frown upside down. It kept those irritating comments at bay.
Now in my mid-30s, I do not aspire to appease the eyes of men.
I couldn’t care less about how they think I look.
What I truly desire is the feeling of being comfortable in my skin and my ability to show my true colours.
It took decades for me to come into my own, stop pretending to be someone I’m not and shed disempowering beliefs that society conditioned me to believe. It was a slow and painful process and I don't want my daughter to have to go through what I went through.
I want her to grow up with the confidence to say no, to be authentic about her true feelings, to voice her opinion even when everyone disagrees with her, to have zero tolerance for toxic behaviours and, lastly, to freely put on whatever face she wants without holding back.
So I urge all men to consider this:
How would you feel if another man told you to smile? And you didn’t want to?
Wouldn’t you want someone to smile at you because they genuinely wanted to? If they’re not smiling, it’s not your role to say or do anything about it.
Instead, start a more open-minded conversation and simply ask, “How are you today?”
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