The assignment to practice smiling came from a friend who’s a media trainer. I do my fair share of presentations and public speaking as a marketing consultant, and though I’d gotten past my fear some time ago, lately my nerves were getting the better of me. I asked my friend to give me some coaching, and at the end of our first session, she said, “You need to smile more.”
Having heard these words many times before, at first they cut me unreasonably. Even as a girl in Los Angeles, I was more offended by men on the street catcalling me to smile than I was by their more sexual hoots and low murmurings. I heard a personal accusation in the words, “C’mon, give us a smile,” as if they were saying, “I see you—the real you, the unhappy you.”
Back then, in my carefully put together outfit of just the right jeans and peasant blouse, I thought I had people fooled. But the males appraising me popped my bright pink bubble of false confidence; sugary gum seemed to hang from my nose and mouth. I wasn’t happy—and these oglers not only knew my secret, but shouted it for all to hear.
The reasons for my unhappiness were not particularly profound—just adolescent. For years, I chalked up my insecurities to specifics. Alcoholic, absent father versus picket fence and Country Squire parked in the driveway. Red hair and pale skin in a California beach town, where cool girls were blond and bronzed. But these were simply my crosses to bear; my friends with the station wagons and tan lines had their own. Now, I know that most people think they were absent the day life’s instruction manual was distributed. Still, my teens and early 20s were all about tucking my flaws in tight. When someone said, “Smile,” I always heard instead, “There’s something wrong with you, girlie, and everyone can see it.”
Of course, this assessment was my own—not the catcaller’s. I was the one who thought that if I could just ferret out my flaws, I’d go around smiling all the time. It took time—and college, a move to New York City, being hired for my dream job, then fired from that same job, years of therapy and recovery, and a troubled relationship from which I fled back home to LA, wounded but resilient—for me to begin to settle into the comfort of my own skin. At about 27, it hit me that I was no longer hiding who I was. A perceived flaw like my red hair became my signature. My hypersensitivity, which had made me shy and prone to hurt, turned out to be a gift: the ability to read other people’s feelings, which has served me well as a writer and communications strategist.
Yet, when my friend the media trainer told me I needed to smile more, I was reminded of all those angsty years. I wondered if—despite making peace with and even coming to appreciate the way I’d grown up, despite my talent and professional expertise, despite my stylish haircut and polished clothing—that uncertain girl still showed through. Did my friend want me to mask that girl with a smile, the way so many men had seemed to want me to?
As it turns out, rather than covering up who I am, she wanted me to show myself. She said, “You know your stuff. With a smile, you’re the driver of your message, welcoming and inviting your audience in.” She talked about the research proving that smiling is a mood elevator. “Smiling,” she said, “will put you at ease. Practice so it becomes second nature, even when you’re tired.”
I’m still working on making smiling a habit, but in the meantime, I’ve noticed that, as soon as I lift the corners of my mouth, my shoulders relax. Like the chicken-egg conundrum, while smiling comes naturally when I’m happy, the act of smiling also lifts my spirits. It’s hard to be uptight when you’re smiling, which may be why Tara Brach makes smiling part of her guided meditations. In one of my favorites, she says, “You might sense that you can smile into the eyes. Slight smile at the mouth. Imagine and sense a smile spreading through the heart. Not to cover over anything but to make room for what’s here.”
To make room for what’s here.
It’s taken me a long time to make room for myself, inside and out. Now when I’m speaking before an audience, that spreading smile changes everything. I forget about performing. Instead, I’m sharing my expertise. And when I walk down the street, I own my stride—the curve of my waist and the scoop of my backside. I no longer need to catch my reflection in passing windows to reassure myself about what others might see.
Recently, on my way to a meeting in New York City, my high heels skirting a puddle, a young guy walked toward me. “Hey, Baby,” he said. His mouth was open, taking me in as I passed, a little Buddha smile on my lips. With over 40 years in my rearview, it turns out I’m not as invisible as women my age are supposed to be. But that smile wasn’t for him—it was for me.