“You'd be so much prettier if you smiled.”
I looked up, startled from the mental to-do list on constant replay in my head, into the face of an unfamiliar man, sauntering towards me on Amsterdam Avenue. I blinked and, almost instinctively, felt my lips curve upwards into a smile.
“That's better,” the man said, looking me up and down as he passed by.
It can be hard to see sexism in such a seemingly innocuous statement.
Smiling at another person is not something that should be commanded. My smile is my business—not a tool to be called out for the whims of strangers.
My appearance is also my business, and for a stranger to assume that he's entitled to tell me how I should look is beyond outdated. No one should ever be told to change how they look to be more attractive to someone, or be shamed for not meeting the aesthetic standards of a stranger on the street.
That incident bothered me all day—not so much for the blatant sexism of the man's comment as for my involuntary smile in response. My treacherous body wanted to smile obediently at him, to be pleasing and attractive to this total stranger. I reacted as though it was somehow wrong for me to be going about my day without worrying about how my expression might appear to the men who might happen to cross my path.
So when, a few days later, I came across the work of Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, it seemed like fate. Fazlalizadeh is currently using her skills to target what she calls “gender based street harassment” with a street art series called “Stop Telling Women To Smile.” Fazlalizadeh's work features black-and-white portraits of real women, with captions based on their own experiences with the harassment they face every day as they navigate city streets.
The women's faces are serious, sometimes defiant; these are not the glossy, hyper-idealized women we see in magazines and advertisements, but real, individual faces with natural expressions. The text on the images is taken from their experiences and represents what these women would like to say to the men who harass them: “Women are not outside for your entertainment,” “Women are not seeking your validation,” and my personal favorite, “Stop telling women to smile.”
These images are a way of fighting back, of responding to men who treat women as if their presence in the street is an open invitation to approach—often aggressively—and comment on their body, clothing, and demeanor. In a pedestrian-heavy city like New York, and especially in the often permissive college environment, this kind of harassment is more common than not; anti-harassment site Hollaback! found that as many as 67 percent of students have been harassed while on a university campus.
Considering the recent problems Columbia has had with rape culture and sexual harassment, it is clear that we still require artists and instigators like Fazlalizadeh to promote discussion and contribute to the building of a more enlightened culture.
What happens on the street is a product of our culture—a culture that, in 2014, still values women by the pleasure they provide to men. Fazlalizadeh's work is seeking to change that culture by plastering cities with huge wall-sized images of women. In doing so, she reminds viewers that merely stepping outside is not an invitation for harassment or for unsolicited comments on how we look.
However, Fazlalizadeh's work does not address the way women respond to such harassment internally. Sexual harassment, even in what may be viewed as a minor form, has serious effects on an individual's self-esteem. It should be easy to brush off the comments of strangers, to ignore the hoots and hollers at street corners. But my response told me that I am not as liberated from our sex-biased culture as I would like to be; when a man tells me to smile, my instinctive reaction is apparently to comply, no matter what I may actually be thinking or feeling.
Rather than ducking my head and flashing a shy smile, I could have stopped and asked that man what he meant by his comment. Each of us is responsible for making it known when something makes us uncomfortable. Just as men ought to stop to consider the context of their comments to women and the impact their words may have, women ought also to consider the effect of their silence and smiles. Like Fazlalizadeh, we owe it to ourselves to let would-be harassers know, person by person if necessary, that we are not outside for their viewing pleasure.
The author is a School of General Studies junior majoring in Classics.
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