To The Man On A Friday Night Who Insisted That I Smile

You are not thinking about this anymore. You have taken scores of footsteps since that moment. You’ve probably downed a few more beers. You’ve slept and worked and laughed and done all of the things simple people with simple lives do. But, I am almost certain that you are not thinking about this anymore.

But I am still thinking about this. I am thinking about this enough that I jotted down notes about our interaction one night while lying in a hotel bed somewhere in the Financial District. I am thinking about that five minute exchange between us that left me with too many words I should have shared that night.

I did not smile as I leaned over and asked the bartender for another glass of Sauvignon Blanc. More specifically, I did not smile at you. I did not smile at you because I did not want to, and that should have been enough. It should have been adequate. It shouldn’t have called anything about me or my character or the tone of the night I was having into question.

But it wasn’t sufficient for you. A woman electing to keep her countenance solemn was not OK because somewhere written in your book of life, “Pretty women should smile.”

And when I still did not smile because I was acute enough not to merely bat my eyelashes at a backhanded compliment, you asked why I had an attitude. I told you that you were misusing the word, that an attitude is simply a feeling, and every human being has an attitude at any given moment of any given day. I shared that I am a writer by nature and a communicator by trade, so words matter. If you wanted to chat about attitudes and such, I required you to come more correct than that.

I still did not smile.

And the last thing you said to me is what’s been burning in the back of both of my ears. The last thing you said is what’s left me replaying that conversation and gritting my teeth. Because “Pretty women should smile” didn’t work and “Why do you have an attitude?” also crashed and burned, you tried a new conversational tactic. You told me that these situations–where men engage with me and insist that I smile–would happen often in life. You told me I should just get used to them.

I told you to have a good night.

But, what I wanted to tell you is that your so-called wisdom didn’t translate. It didn’t seep somewhere deep into my psyche and galvanize a change in how I respond to men like you. You can’t teach me the things I’ve already learned and experienced. See, I have known how some men think some women should behave since the moment my hips began curving like Coke bottles.

You are not the first man who insisted that I smile. You absolutely will not be the last.

I have been told to smile on street corners and in the same breath been called unkind names. I have crossed the street at intersections that would not lead to my destination in order to avoid head-on collisions with men I don’t trust. I have worn the war paint of averted eyes coupled with straight lips. And in spite of all of these things, some days I still lose the battle of making my way through the world as a person and not a possession.

i know these things are nothing new. These words are a drop in the ocean of how women who do not smile upon command feel. Women have had the seemingly innocent sins of men stuck to them like gum on the bottom of good sneakers forever.

But, today, I had to get your gum off of my good sneakers. So I penned a few sentences. I did not fancy them up. I did not paint them in my poetry. I did not do them the artistic justice they probably deserved. Because pretty women should not necessarily smile. But they should let their words take shape before something uglier inside of them does.


A Polka-Dotted Peplum Dress, Street Harassment and The War To Reclaim My Silhouette

My polka-dotted teal peplum dress still has the tag on it. I buy it in March when I restock my wardrobe with a few pieces in an attempt to escape the winter doldrums and fast track my mind to summer. The perfect opportunity to wear the dress comes about  when I make a rare trip to the club for my friend’s birthday. I pull the purchase out of my closet and plan on wearing it until I realize I will have to take the Metro by myself to the club. This dress is short, fitted and fun, an escape from the usual blazers and pencil skirts I wear Monday through Friday. It would be the perfect clubbing uniform, but the thought of walking down a DC street in something short and tight without at least a few girlfriends to encase my body worries me.

I opt for a longer black dress instead.

The black dress does not completely detract attention from me, but it is a more modest choice that I feel comfortable in. The days prior as I put back the peplum dress and my nude pumps and replace them with the black dress and my strappy black heels, I consider how ludicrous all of this is. I am anxiety-ridden enough about potential comments from total strangers to revamp an entire outfit. Maybe some women never think about this, but I am not one of them. I am always all-too-aware of the stares of strange men and the gross comments that escape their lips, venom disguised as a compliment.

A few weeks after I abandon my teal peplum dress, I walk down a street in Chinatown. I have just had a fabulous day with friends in the city and am headed back home on the Metro. I walk down the street quickly and soon realize I need to cross to get to the Metro station. As I get ready to cross, I hear, “Damn, you sexy as shit, baby girl.” I do not turn my head to identify where the pseudo compliment came from. I try not to cringe and then speed across the street. I am dressed in my favorite tan boots, a blue dress and a plaid scarf. This ensemble is a far cry from my club dresses. But, I still can’t win. Should I consider adorning myself in paper bags?

Street harassment has been at the epicenter of the news lately. More recently, The Atlantic included a story about an app being designed to help women avoid street harassment. Numerous articles about the topic have been penned and I can tell you right now that I am not going to say anything brand new. If you want late-breaking news about street harassment, turn to channel 5 or something. Cause it’s not hidden in this essay.

I didn’t even learn of the term “street harassment” until my early adult years, let alone know there are entire movements to try and end it. Growing up, I just shuddered at the unwanted and undisguised attention of men. But, the older I got, the more I actively avoided the attention, aware that my entire day could be ruined by a relentless man on a stoop letting me know how he felt about my thighs. The uncensored remarks twist you. They seep into your pores and can make you feel cheap if you’re already having a not-so-good day. You become a street showpiece, completely out of control of your own skeleton.

The men want you to hear them, but they do not want you to talk back. Or, if you do reply, it should be warm acceptance of the cyanide that just came out of their mouths. Perhaps a smile. Otherwise, this is a malignant monologue. You are designed only to excite and heighten someone else’s nether regions. And, you better like it. You better soak it up. You better revel in it because should you scoff or rattle off a rebuttal or even just ignore them and keep walking, you run the risk of being called a bitch, a whore and a host of other names never given to you at birth.

I do not know if these men find their words complimentary. I do not know if they truly believe they are absolutely making my day by calling me “baby girl.” I do not know if they even realize that the battle to both reclaim and own my silhouette is an ongoing war independent of them, one laced with my harrowing and heavyweight history. I do not know what they think. But, I would be all-too-appreciative if they would just quit.