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It's Important For Men to Understand That They Need To Stop Telling Women to Smile

12/04/2016 7:50 AM AEST | Updated 12/04/2017 7:12 PM AEST

"The sexualization behind telling women to smile is alarming. It makes women feel that we are only meant to be happy and pretty and it's a passive way to engage into an unwanted conversation"

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Smiling is one of the warmest gestures a person can give to another person. It's especially warm when children smile because it's a sign of genuine happiness even if it's for a slight moment - that smile is appreciated. This is why I am extremely uncomfortable when strange men tell me to smile. It's overbearing, invasive and slightly eerie for men to tell women (that they've never seen or met before) to smile. I can't help but to wonder if these same men that are commanding women to smile also tell other men to smile? Telling a woman to smile, even if your intent is purely innocent is dictatorial and it shouldn't happen.

Now I know, there are some men and even women that will read this and assume I'm being a radical feminist but let me ask you, when was the last time someone, a stranger even, demanded you to do something you didn't want to do? What if you are having a bad day, perhaps you are having severe cramps, or maybe you are late for work and there is a stranger, looking at you requesting and telling you to smile? It might seem like a friendly gesture but there is nothing friendly about a man encouraging a strange woman to smile.

Remember when Secretary of State Clinton was sweeping the Midwest in the primaries, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough was moved to tweet Mrs. Clinton to smile. He didn't tell Trump to smile, or anyone else but the only woman running for president he tells to smile. It doesn't matter if you don't agree with Clinton's politics or not the fact remains she is a very smart and accomplished woman in her own right and to subjugate her to just a 'pretty face that should always smile' is an insult.

In New Zealand, a man assaulted a woman after she smiled because according to him it is customary in Malaysia that "women who smile are inviting men to follow them." This is not a rare occurrence that only happens in other countries in cultures. Everyday, women are assaulted by men, some of those incidents occurred from strangers that use the "smile" conversations to start an unwanted conversation, this is harassment.

The sexualization behind telling women to smile is alarming. It makes women feel that we are only meant to be happy and pretty and it's a passive way to engage into an unwanted conversation. Asking a woman to smile is a selfish act and it's rarely in a caring tone; it's condescending and it turns a simple gesture into something sexual. Instead of asking a woman how she actually feels or being open minded to the idea she might not be interested, there are men that will berate a woman into doing something that she isn't comfortable doing. That is unacceptable.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the creator of StopTellingWomenToSmile.com created an entire art series of portraits and a street art project addressing gender based street harassment.

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Image credit: StopTellingWomentoSmile.com

"Men tell women to smile because society conditions men to think we exist for the male gaze and for their pleasure. Men are socialized to believe they have control over women's bodies. This [is the] result in them giving unsolicited instructions on how we should look, think and act. Essentially what a man is saying when he tells a woman -- one he doesn't even know -- to smile, is that his wants outweigh her own autonomy over how she exists in the world." Bené Viera, writer and activist explains to me about her views on men telling women they don't know they should smile.

Just about everyday I encounter men of all ages and nationalities that tell me to smile. I even keep my headphones on to discourage unwanted conversations from men but that doesn't deter them. I even tell them I'm married and I wear a fake wedding ring and they still try to instruct me to smile or encourage "friendship". It's a sad state of affairs that the word 'no' has to be expounded on by the receiver - no is a complete sentence and a very clear demand.

Just about every woman has a story similar to mine. Viera recalls the time she was embarrassed on a flight, "It's frustrating. Women are just trying to get from point A to point B without commentary from men on our bodies or telling us to smile. During the Christmas holiday, I was on a plane when a military guy embarrassed me in front of everyone in our section by tapping me on the shoulder and telling me, "You need to learn how to smile." I was stunned speechless. The longer I thought about how embarrassed I was the more I couldn't help but let him know that telling women to smile is both corny and sexist. So I passed him a nice "Fuck you" note explaining to him that I could've just lost a parent or went through something tragic. Telling women to smile is not men's place."

Why does it seem as if men can't understand that certain behaviors to get women's attention is not only uncomfortable but it's invasive and overstepping boundaries? Do you think this is a concept that is hard to grasp for men or do you think they just don't care? Viera weighs in, "No. Time and time again, Twitter and online discussions on this topic prove that not only do men not understand why it's harmful, they simply do not care."

I am asking all men to think about the next time you ask women to smile to think about how many men have already asked her that already. I want you to think about how you would react if another man asked you to smile, especially if you didn't want to. Besides, wouldn't you want a woman to smile at you because she wants to? If you have to ask her to smile, she's not interested.

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