Why Do We Hate Women Who Don't Smile 'Enough'?

"Women face a trade-off – competence versus likability.”
Stephane Cardinale - Corbis via Getty Images

Since the release of the docuseries Beckham, coverage of Victoria Beckham’s treatment by the press during the early 00s has been unearthed – and it’s ugly.

In the series, Victoria reflects on how the media treated her – “I was always the villain,” she says.

It was her defiant, trademark pout that often put her in the firing line. The ex-Spice Girl confessed in an interview with Glamour Magazine in 2019 that not smiling was a form of self-preservation, calling it her ‘armour’.

Victoria was often branded as snobbish by the tabloids. In 2003, The Evening Standard wrote ′Pouting Posh is a Pain in Spain,′ about Victoria asking to be kept away from the paparazzi during a fashion event. All things considered, a very reasonable request.

But she’s far from alone. Women in the spotlight are often the target of unrelenting sexist criticism, so much so that they can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), because of the intensity of the misogyny they face. Keira Knightly was one such person. In an interview with Harpers Bazar, she revealed that her experiences in the limelight were “brutal” and that she was proud to have survived such trauma.

It’s not only celebrities who must overcome barriers put in place by the sexual double standard, a sociological belief that women and men are held to different accounts based on their gender. During her campaign for the presidency in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lack of a smile invited many a man on the internet to ask for a smile from the Democratic front-runner. But, why?

Simone Biles was told to smile following a win on America’s Dancing With The Stars, but why should success be stamped with a smile?

Why do women hate being told to smile?

A study in 2019 found that almost all women — 98%, have been told to smile in their lifetime. At work, on the street and even at home. But why is this such a big deal? Putting the question to people on social media, multiple women shared their disgust with HuffPost UK.

“Just straight-up mind your business,” one person said. “Nobody else should have input on how I carry my face!!!!!” added another.

Being told to smile is probably one of the most infuriating cat-calls that can be levelled at a woman. This brand of micro-aggressive sexism is a reminder of what patriarchy calls on women to be; meek, mild and affable in order to be likeable. To be serving and pleasant, and not display any resistance to gender norms in the world around them — or else they won’t be tolerated, let alone valued.

It’s a view shared by Dr Michelle P King, author of How Work Works: The Subtle Science of Getting Ahead Without Losing Yourself. “It’s a ridiculous standard, that women are asked to smile,” she says.

She tells HuffPost UK that smiling is one way women can retain likeability, but it comes at a cost, “Women face a trade-off,” she says, “Competence versus likability.”

But what does this trade-off look like?

Telling someone to smile, is like telling someone to be obedient. To let go of their authentic emotions or reactions to something, and mask them in order to appease the uncomfortableness of the asker. And so, not conforming to the ask can be seen as an act of resistance — or disobedience. But there are plenty of reasons women do not want to smile.

So — why do men keep asking?

It is a big deal, actually.

Dr King tells us that it all comes down to what men are and aren’t comfortable with. For women who experience this form of sexism at work, she explains that “when we tell women to smile, what we’re really saying is, I need you to make me more comfortable with your success or your leadership.”

She points out that, because of gender denial, (a term that describes men’s inability to accept or understand anyone’s lived experience but their own), men fundamentally believe that “their experience is the only experience” be that at work or outside of work. This extends to other sociological factors of inequality too, like race, ethnicity, religion and class.

And so, for Black women facing inequality, being asked to smile becomes a compound micro-aggression that intersects with sexism and racism because of stereotypes like “the angry Black woman.” This means that to survive and get ahead in the workplace and in social situations, Black women use code-switching behaviours to survive and find success.

“If women are walking in the street, and they’re told to smile, it’s because somewhere somebody wants a woman to adhere to gender norms,” says Dr King. “And I think you can defy that. But you need to recognise that comes up as a cost to likability. And that ultimately affects your mental and emotional well-being.”

This view is shared by Mark Vahrmeyer, an accredited UKCP psychotherapist: “It seems that the expectation on women to embody ‘sugar and spice and all things nice…’ remains embedded in the fabric of society and when these attributes are not displayed by women through smiling, they are judged harshly by not only men but also by other women.”

“I think it’s so frustrating because women really do deserve to be themselves and be valued for that,” says Dr King. “And all the research shows, if you create environments where women are valued, you’re going to get more creativity, more innovation, by helping women free up a tonne of mental energy that they use to fit in.”

So not only are gender norms preventing women from advancing at work, but preventing society from moving forward to a more accepting and less dangerous place for women to inhabit.

There is an entitlement at play when men ask women to smile. As though their discomfort outweighs our autonomy.

Bené Viera, writer and activist, told HuffPost in 2016 that; “Men tell women to smile because society conditions men to think we exist for the male gaze and for their pleasure. Men are socialised 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.”

Fast forward seven years, and not much has changed. Women are still being asked to give up their autonomy to comfort the male gaze in some way shape or form. In 2021, UNWomen reported that six in 10 women felt that sexual harassment in public places had become worse.

It might seem like such a small thing, asking someone to smile at you. But the truth is all you’re doing is feeding into a larger ecosystem of misogyny that’s systematically ingrained in society, culturally and politically. The difficult truth is if we continue to allow misogyny and sexism to run rife then we will continue to reap what we sow. And we can’t afford to keep doing that. Especially when men are killing one woman every three days — a statistic that hasn’t changed for over ten years.

In today’s world where the radicalisation of boys and men poses a serious threat to women and girls. Thanks to people like the Tate brothers, who promote extreme violence towards women on their social media accounts.

Additionally, this year, there has been a large rise in men referred to Prevent (counter terrorism policing) over incel ideology. And, the news has been saturated with stories of police officers committing offences, alleged celebrity sexual abuse and more. It’s inescapable. Being asked to smile may be just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s indicative of the patriarchy’s misogynistic and sexist oppression of anyone who isn’t a cis-gendered white middle-class man.

Asking a woman to smile is ultimately a symptom of objectification, a sociological term that describes the debasement of something to the status of ‘object’, no longer making it alive. And, when we no longer see women as alive, we treat them as disposable.

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