10/09/2015 04:55 BST | Updated 09/09/2016 06:12 BST

Don't Tell Me to Smile

Posing for a photo. Yelled at in the street. Regurgitated tropes claiming it takes more muscles to frown. Regardless of context, I detest being told to smile.

Don't get me wrong. I'm deadpan, not downbeat; my brand of humour is as dry as tea with Great Aunt Hilda, with no biscuits. I'm just not the 'bubbly' type. Not smiling doesn't mean I'm not happy or pleased to see you (but if you've arrived without biscuits, I'm probably not).

Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is tackling the darker side of this modern irritation with Stop Telling Women To Smile: a series of posters focused on gender based street harassment. As Poorna Bell notes, the pernicious 'Smile, Love' is really no better than catcalling. But it's not always (intentionally) misogynistic.

In evolutionary terms, a smile signalled a lack of threat: 'I want to be your friend, please don't bite my head off'. But to understand our current obsession with smiling, we must look to one major culprit: the camera.

You'd be hard pressed to spot a smile in early photography, or even earlier, in European portraiture. It was the preserve of gurning halfwits, drunks, the lower echelons of society. Smiling was (wait for it) frowned upon: a breach of etiquette that called for utmost decency in the mouth area.

Caravaggio's Triumphant Eros caused outrage in 1602, not for the subject's 'youthful tumescence', but for his wicked smile. Not to mention the generations of artistic histrionics over whether Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is, in fact, smiling.


Long before 'say cheese' became one of the most teeth-rattling phrases on the planet, nineteenth century photographic studios would have people say 'prunes' when posing for portraits. The precursor to 'duck face', it naturally purses the lips, and long exposure times (subjects could sit for hours) made it impossible to maintain a more emotionally engaged expression.

Smiling for the camera is, according to academic Christina Kotchemidova, a cultural construction of twentieth-century American snapshot photography. Kodak's $1 camera, launched in 1900, created a mass market for photography. And, crucially, the Eastman Corporation didn't just sell cameras: they sold happiness. People in its communications were shown grinning and enjoying themselves - a counter culture to the stoicism of portraiture.

Today, alongside food porn and cat GIFs, smiling #selfies dominate our Instagram feeds. 'Here's me having the time of my life by that amusing sign', they say. 'Don't you wish you were here?' they beg.

Photographer Andrew Smith believes a smile is a kind of mask:

"Perhaps people feel that if we look sad or grumpy or angry, or simply don't smile, then we reveal something of our inner selves, and we don't want to do that in a photograph that will likely be seen by strangers."

Speaking to the BBC, Smith recounts a lady who had been held at gunpoint, and whose house had recently been destroyed, yet "it took quite some time to get a photograph in which she didn't have a beaming smile."

The face we show the world in photographs is deeply conditioned: look happy, or risk revealing something real. Yet search 'beautiful woman' on Google and the results are posed, unnatural. Fashion famously takes itself so seriously that were a smile to slip onto a catwalk it would be punishable with an intravenous drip of non-diet Coke. Huge billboards strip Cara Delevingne of her cheeky character and have her pouting, endlessly into the tired eyes of commuters. But the rest of adland persists with the happiness myth, as smiling women (yes, it is usually women) sell all manner of dreams from the perfect teeth to the perfect holiday.

Our visual culture shapes our behaviour, from the studio to the street. If we are to evolve from portraying women as gormlessly grinning props, we must broaden the range of expressions we permit them to wear.

You can't ask someone to smile. It is given away, for free, at the owner's discretion. A true smile signals unselfconsciousness - the opposite of today's sculpted, calibrated social media self.

If we stop this persistent insistence on smiling, maybe - one day - the words 'cheer up love' will never again be jeered from the back of a van.

Now that would give me something to smile about.