It’s My Life, and I’ll Smile if I Want To

Writer Katie Kohler is fed up with being told to put on a smile.



Illustration by Michele Melcher.

I’m sitting on the edge of the fountain at the Plymouth Meeting Mall, waiting for the stream of water to pop up so I can run my finger through it. It’s what kids—sans smartphones—did for entertainment in the 1980s while their mothers shopped at Strawbridge’s.

A man standing next to me hands his grandson a penny to make a wish. He eyes me for a few seconds, then says, “Smile, little girl. You’d be prettier if you smiled.”

I thought to myself, “I hope your grandson wished for a better grandfather.”

Years later, at the Norristown Public Library, I’m behind a mountain of books, trying to compile enough sources for my first history paper in high school. A man more outdated than an Encyclopaedia Britannica tries to make eye contact.

“Hey. Why aren’t you smiling? Nice girls smile,” he says.

“Maybe I don’t want to be a ‘nice’ girl,” I thought to myself. “Maybe I want to be a ‘smart,’ ‘successful’ or ‘funny’ girl.”

I was never a miserable kid. And though I might’ve had an extra teaspoon of teenage angst, I didn’t have a dour expression on purpose. But a stranger telling me to smile—like they’re a Lifetouch employee on Picture Day—guarantees that I’ll be flashing my fangs, not my pearly whites.

My friend who works in finance gets glowing reviews and is admired for her organizational skills. Yet, since she was a teenager, she’s been self-diagnosed with “resting bitch face.” But is it really some great malady not to be constantly sporting a toothy Miss America grin.

“People think I’m angry all the time—I’m not,” she says. “This is just the face God gave me.”

Maybe we’re not smiling because we know we make 77 cents to a man’s dollar, have the worst maternity leave of any country, and hold less than 25 percent of the senior management positions around the world. Or maybe it’s because we care more about what’s happening behind the smile than the smile itself.

It’s not a “resting bitch” face. It’s what we call “focused.”

Katie Kohler wonders what might happen if women approached men and told them to smile. Visit www.katiekohler.com.

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