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Beyond the smile: Unveiling the unspoken rules for women

By Warisha Qaimkhani, April 5 2024—

In a world filled with face-value judgements and unfair expectations held upon women, the seemingly innocent advice to “smile more” stands out as a persistent, albeit overlooked, pressure. Now, don’t be fooled by what seems like a benign request to flex some muscles from the side of the mouth — there’s a rich history of gendered expectations behind it all.

This apparent innocent advice can be traced back to the olden days, a time when gender norms were at a peak. In the Victorian era, women were expected to embody traits of docility and subservience, judged solely based on their appearance. To not smile was to defy these stereotypes, a subtle (perhaps even subconscious) act of rebellion against societal expectations.

A survey on women, hormones and oral health shows that 98 percent of women have reported that they have been told to smile at work, at some point in their lives. This demand often serves as a means of control, dictating how women should present themselves in professional settings. In the workforce, women are generally criticized for being straightforward and ambitious, while their male counterparts are praised as being “hustlers” for the same traits. Conversely, women who adopt an easy-going and soft persona are more likely to feel welcomed in their work environment. 

The expectation for women to smile more also serves as a tool for mansplaining — a mechanism by which men assert authority over women’s experiences and emotions. When women dare to challenge the patriarchal status quo, they are met with a barrage of dismissive remarks, often being told to “smile and bear it” or to refrain from “making a big deal out of it.” This attempt to diminish women’s voices and emotions is a blatant attempt to maintain the status quo and suppress feminist discourse. By limiting the range of emotions women are allowed to express, misogynists seek to undermine the validity of feminist grievances.

As someone who has been told countless times to “smile more” in professional settings and even during my school years, such as being instructed to “put on a happy face” in classroom discussions or presentations, it’s disheartening to see how such a seemingly innocuous phrase carries the weight of gendered expectations.

It would be naive to think women in positions of power are exempt from this scrutiny. The suggestion for women in positions of power to “smile more” is not merely an isolated incident but rather a recruiting theme that underscores the pervasive nature of gender biases in our society. When White House press secretary Sarah Sanders suggested that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should smile more, she echoed a sentiment that has been directed at numerous female politicians across the political spectrum. This is one among numerous examples of female politicians having been told to smile more, highlighting how the phrase is used as a means to undermine their authority and dismiss their accomplishments.

Exploring the societal pressure for women to smile more amplifies an underrepresented narrative and provides insights into the lived experiences of women. This resonates deeply with the spirit of International Women’s Month, which aims to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about gender inequality and promote gender inclusivity. As we celebrate International Women’s Month, it is crucial to reflect on the struggles and challenges faced by women around the world. It’s time to challenge these gendered expectations and recognize that women should not be judged based on their facial expressions but rather on their actions and qualifications. Let us strive for a world where women are free to express themselves authentically, without facing criticism for not conforming to societal norms of femininity. 

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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