By: Whitney Millard, Regular Contributor
“Smile, it’s not so bad.”
“You know you really should smile.”
I’d hear statements like this, usually while working a particularly grueling customer service shift, and sometimes I would smile just to appease them. Sometimes I would try and say something clever back. Every single time an awful icy feeling would over come me and giant pit would open in my stomach. I didn’t know why it always felt so wrong. I was worried maybe it meant I wasn’t doing a good job and I’ve always strived to do my best, even when things are busy or especially difficult. I worried they would say something about how unpleasant I was, because a giant smile plastered across your face was part of the uniform, right? I heard it even as I was awarded internal companywide awards for friendliness and excellence in customer service. Clearly I wasn’t being unpleasant.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I heard other women speak up about being told to “smile” that I realized it always made me feel bad because it was wrong, because it meant there were people who thought I was only there to look at and no amount of my hard work was actually going to matter to them in the end. The people saying this, all men, just wanted to exert this power over me, to know I would do what they asked. In hindsight it makes my stomach lurch all over again.
So when I saw an amazing project entitled STOP TELLING WOMEN TO SMILE I was moved with recognition, with appreciation for how important this is. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an artist in Brooklyn, NY decided to speak out against gender based street harassment in an incredibly brave and creative way. Every day, in her city and cities all over the world women face harassment while traveling to their jobs, to their homes, while running errands and going about their own business. We have all seen this or been victim to it ourselves, and anyone can tell you it doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel like a compliment. It makes you feel self-conscious, minimized, and reduced to only parts of yourself.
Tatyana uses her incredible skill as a portrait artist to create posters with hand drawn photos of women who have encountered street harassment. She talks to them, candidly and openly, about their experiences and adds either a quote or summary of what she learned from them to the bottom of the poster. She hangs these posters with wheat paste in the women’s home neighborhoods and beyond, putting a face to harassment that can leave you feeling unseen, and showing these are real people who deserve respect, not to be called names or become the subject of an angry, childish temper tantrum when they don’t acknowledge their harasser. Which sadly happens all too often.
The most troubling part of all of this to me is the entitlement other people feel to women’s time, bodies, and energy. We must protect these things; they are precious, invaluable, and not for anyone we don’t want to share them with. And beyond that we have to speak up for ourselves, and the women we know and love. Projects like this one leave me hopeful for a future where women can work and walk and do anything they please without fear or harassment or even greater danger.
How do you respond to street harassment? Do you think campaigns like these are a step in the right direction?
Whitney Millard is a writer in Los Angeles attempting to make sense of this crazy world and it’s wonderful people. She launched her blog, WhittyWords.com last fall to have a place to lay down her (perhaps too many) thoughts and feelings. You can usually find her any place that has books, a stage, or boba tea and potstickers.