not street harassment but lets call this “office harassment.” Here’s my smile story.
I’m at work, in my cubicle. I’m an intern and it’s my second or third week. I’m new, I’m nervous, but I’m in the zone. I’m staring at excel spreadsheets of numbers and formulas and then I hear a whispering voice and it breaks my concentration.
I didn’t realize how annoying this would become but other things were at play, like his over-friendliness, his spending way too much time at my desk fixing things and showing me shortcuts that–I mean really–we could hold off on I didn’t have this super urgent project on my desk and I wasn’t trying to make an impression at a big deal internship. But I digress. I was indifferent to my supervisor completing a sexual harassment webinar or something of the sort. I was the team’s first intern and my supervisor and boss were both men. I’d never had men as my direct supervisor(s). But these were two straight-arrow men; very professional, funny, and supportive. I hadn’t experienced anything that made me uncomfortable in the slightest besides “newbie jitters”. And then…
I looked up and the IT guy was walking by my cubicle. He tried to direct message me earlier. This was after he’d manually put his username into my instant messenger. This guy never crossed the line but I still wondered if he’d told anyone else to smile; if anyone whose eyes dimmed by the glow of a computer screen or the monotony of an excel spreadsheet was worthy of such “encouragement.”
I succumbed and smirked once in acknowledgment but still, he persisted. After a couple of times, I thought, This is ridiculous. I’m not going to smile at excel like some idiot. The last time, he just let out a frustrated sigh. I felt a little ashamed. Why not just smile? It takes more muscles to smile than to frown, right?
No. I have bitchy resting face. And I can’t really do anything about it. And to smile just because you’re walking by my desk? It’s asking a lot.
Last year, Shoshana B. Roberts, an actress living in New York City, did the world a favor to expose this “imaginary” phenomenon we women call street harassment. She followed a friend with a camera fastened to his backpack and documented the 108 times Shoshana was catcalled during the coarse of 10 hours–while simply walking through the streets. She was doing what most New Yorkers on the streets are doing: trying to get from A to B. She was followed twice (both times for several minutes or more), hurled with frustration at her non-comply, some men simply said hello. She was also told to smile, several times. Among the usual reactions to videos and articles on street harassment—you know the “Why can’t women just take a compliment” and “all she has to do is say hi” or my favorite “are we still talking about street harassment?”—was confusion about why “smile” is considered a form of street harassment.
Would you smile after of a day of this?
I don’t mind being told to smile by my mom when I’m down but a stranger on the street suggests something very… unsettling. Like racism and appropriation, this suggestion is a little more implicit, more to do with history I suppose than any person’s intent. But what it suggests is that I must always be on for you—some random man or just men as a gender. I’m there for your pleasure, for you to get a kick out of. That is my purpose as a woman whether I’m doing work at my desk or trying to make my two o’clock. And like my co-worker implied, if I’m not, I’m some form of disappointment for you.
I once saw a posting on Craig’s List’s missed connections section (yes I occasionally wonder who saw me looking fly at the grocery store). Some man posted a rant about this “bitch face” trend. I wish I could fish it out. I wish I’d taken a screen shot or something but I remember thinking, Gosh, they really don’t get it do they? Listen, bitchy resting face is not a thing that women are “doing now,” it’s not a frown, it’s often not because they’re upset or mean; it is simply the absence of a smile. Because, c’mon, in the real world would you smile staring at a computer screen or walking down the street through crowds of people half of which don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going?
Shoshana who may suffer from bitchy resting face or “I’m just going home/to work” face describes herself as “bubbly” on her website. So the “condition” is not evidence of an ill-feeling or bitchy woman. Here’s an educational video on bitchy resting face and it’s male equivalent: asshole resting face.
Jokes aside, here is another point that must not but forgotten: Some women do put the bitch face on before they leave for work or when they’re walking through an intimidating host of men on the sidewalk, bracing themselves for the inevitable. Why? Perhaps, you should go back and watch that video again. It’s an armor. It’s a sign that reads “I know what you’re going to say. I’ve heard it all day. The answer is I don’t want to talk to you. I’m not here to make you smile. I’m not here for your amusement. I’m just trying to get home so I can lick my wounds in peace.”