There are so many songs about smiles. ‘Smile, though your heart is breaking’. ‘Smile, and the whole world smiles with you’. ‘You’re never fully dressed without a smile’.. It’s an extensive collection.
There is nothing nicer than seeing a genuine, heart felt smile. That unique expression that conveys a myriad of positive emotions. Love, gratitude, happiness, amusement, satisfaction, freedom, joy. It can also be an empty expression that represents nothing positive. A painted on shield and display of obligation. A mask to conceal pain. A determined veneer that conceals the most heinous of emotions. Fear, betrayal, desperation and emotional paralysis.
At some of the worst moments of my life I have possibly worn the most determined smiles. Something I retrospectively observe when viewing images from my past. An oddly frozen expression; snapped when recording occasions that were intended to inform the world my life was grand. In the ensuing years I have had others tell me they noted I often looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy. That my eyes looked scared or blank. Perhaps testimony to the fact you can’t always hide your emotions, even when you are extremely practiced at it.
The question remains .. why DID I always smile? Why did I try so hard to convey happiness and conform to social expectation? Quite a multilayered question. The first and most obvious answer is I was in a situation where I had no choice. A holiday snap on a social media post showing how fabulous it all is can’t be accompanied by an image where life doesn’t look sunny. The photo will be examined by the other party and you’ll be berated for not portraying the desired image. I didn’t just perform for the camera lens. I determinedly smiled at social occasions, at work, when cooking, when cleaning the house, when watching television. A smile was my armour. A smile was safe. Not smiling was a dangerous choice.
As children and young women we are told to smile for authority. To show respect. Smile at teachers, parents, pastors and policemen. A particular young woman recently refused to smile at our Prime Minister. She was authentic in revealing her emotions and has weathered a storm of criticism. Where were her manners? How hard could it have been to just smile and not create a scene? Why was she so arrogant? Didn’t she know her place at such an important event?
Grace Tame’s now infamous side eye has opened up an interesting dialogue. She herself has said that her innate programming to please and respect a powerful authority figure was insidiously entangled with the heinous abuse she suffered as a teenager. The wife of our Prime Minister has now publicly denounced Tame’s lack of ‘manners’. I certainly do not condone needless disrespect and random rude behaviour towards others. Yet, where are we as a society if we cannot express ourselves when we have justifiable cause? Why should a withering glance from a young woman cause such uproar? In mere seconds she challenged the status quo of the privileged male. She cast aside his authority and his power. She harnessed her own power.
She was authentic.
She was unafraid.
She was unapologetic.
It is my hope that in years to come, Tame’s response to a powerful male will be viewed as less out of the ordinary. The women of my generation often struggle to break the patterns imparted by our mothers, our mentors and our teachers. We bear the restrictions of long standing programming and social expectation. For all the progress I have made, my first instinct is still to smile. To not betray an internal dialogue which may be expressing fear, anger or revulsion. A female who scowls or verbally expresses such things is not ladylike. Our personal truth may incite a negative reaction from an observer. We could be labelled as a man-hater. A ball-breaker. An arrogant woman.
A Grace Tame. A Brittany Higgins. A Virginia Giuffre.
I am reminded of a moment five years ago when I had left my former life. I was returning to my first day at work since my flight and was both traceable and vulnerable. Within hours, the man I had escaped appeared at my workplace and was waiting for me. As I sat at a lunch table he approached, stood over me and pulled me aside. It was as I had feared and expected. As he walked towards me I instinctively did the one thing I was trained to do. I smiled. I still recall the cognitive dissonance of that split second. Filled with adrenaline I succumbed to social expectation and an engrained habit of self preservation. It was a hectic few minutes. I held my ground and walked away from him with the assistance of colleagues aware of my predicament.
It was the last time we ever spoke and the last time he was ever gifted an unjustified smile.
The time has come to discuss topics hitherto seen as either taboo or insurmountable. Domestic violence. Coercive control. Sexual assault. The corrupt mechanisms that prevent women from being safe and receiving justice. The failures in the system. If the established cycle of abuse and misogyny is to cease, archaic social norms must change for women. We have the likes of Grace Tame and her brave compatriots to thank for removing the lid from this mammoth jar of worms. These admirable women are making noise. We owe it to their bravery to join them.
Soldiering forward, let every smile be for the right reasons.