In college, I worked the morning shift at a coffee shop, which meant I had to haul myself there by 5:30 a.m., bleary-eyed and absolutely unsuitable for company. But as the regulars streamed in with their Thermoses, I buried my yawns and pasted a smile on my face, like a name tag. An identity. For six hours each morning, I played the solicitous barista, ready to serve caffeine and good cheer.
My time in customer service seared into me, to the point that all these years later, I still feel compelled to smile whether anyone is looking or not. I smiled at the UPS cashier who handled my Amazon returns (bless her), the trash collectors coasting down our street, the dad at pick-up prone to heavy sighs. When I was younger, I used to smile at spread-legged men on the train, professors who really enjoyed the sound of their own voices, and male coworkers who commented on my outfits (“Not to be creepy, but I love that boots-and-short-skirt combo.” How, my dude, is that not creepy?). My smile became a kind of armor to protect against any suspicion that I was not, after all, a good-natured and unthreatening member of society.
Turns out: the constant act of smiling can really wither your soul to dry little ashes.
Growing up, I was an outwardly sullen kid. Photos from the ‘90s usually show me scowling like the lead singer of a grunge band. Then, as a teenager, I made up for all those unsmiling early years by lavishing grins on anyone who glanced my way. At that point, I understood that for women, a smile is often a form of currency or, in more dire circumstances, a survival tactic. It can ease tensions. It can make you look more approachable. And in my Vietnamese American family, a smile was often equated with femininity, which was a prized attribute. To disarm people — often white people, teachers, cops, or anyone in a position of perceived authority — I smiled. “See,” I silently communicated, “I may be different, but I am nice!” My armor didn’t budge.
A friend told me about how, as a woman living alone, she once had a contractor in her home who displayed frightening hostility towards her. She felt compelled to dispel his ire by showering him with sweetness, lest he retaliates against her. After all, he knew where she lived. She, too, froze a smile on her face until she finally shut the door after him, sinking in relief. Because the consequence of angering a man — a flirting man, a boss in power, a stranger on the street — can sometimes mean scary things for women.
Once, at an airport in Saigon, as I struggled with the loss of my luggage, a stranger approached me. He got terribly close and, with his fingertips, pantomimed a curve stretching from one side of his face to the other. “Where’s your smile?” he’d asked. “Pretty girls should always smile.” And, reader, to my everlasting shame, I did smile at him. For no other reason than the fact that he told me to.
This continued for decades, until I became a mother. From the time my daughter first unfurled her tiny fists, I found myself more passionate about her bodily autonomy than I ever was with my own. Sometimes, I’d peek at her through the rearview mirror of the car and see her face at rest, not even angry-looking or teary-eyed. Just not smiling. I’d pester, “Are you okay? You sure, honey?” until she finally reassured me with a fake grin, summoned for my benefit. Then I understood that I was asking her to perform her well-being for my comfort, rather than as an expression of true joy. And that was precisely what society had been asking of me — all women — for as long as I could remember.
When the pandemic first descended, I rarely saw anyone in person. When I did go out, I had a mask or two strapped on my face, which led me to a liberating realization: No one can tell what your mouth is doing behind a mask. I could be smiling or frowning, or sticking out my tongue. There is no judgment, because there’s no invisible accounting of people’s expressions. Once I learned this, I felt my face physically relax in a way it hadn’t in ages. I’ll tell you: Not smiling felt nearly orgasmic. I could breathe. I could focus on the interactions in front of me, rather than rehearsing social cues and “fixing my face.” Even if no one saw it, behind the mask, I was able to be my most authentic self. It turns out: Those masks offer more than one kind of protection.
These days, I don’t smile nearly as much as I once did, but it doesn’t bother me. When I do find my smile, it’s spontaneous, the product of something delightful my daughter has done (a common-enough occurrence with an imaginative child), a joke a friend has told, my husband’s weekend donut run, the Wendy’s Twitter account, or one of a million other bursts of joy that I’m lucky enough to receive throughout the day. What I don’t smile at? Meetings that last too long, microaggressions, sexist jokes, unwanted attention, and a host of things I learned to brush off for years. I think it’s accurate to say I’m a little less likable than I once was — at least to some. My smiles are certainly harder to win, no longer a guaranteed social lubricant or a proffered passport for entry into civil society.
But even without all that gratuitous smiling, make no mistake: I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And this joy — authentic, spontaneous, untethered by gender expectations — is what I hope to model for my own daughter, who manages to find genuine and surprising ways to express herself every single day.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.
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