Opinion

“Smile!”

Age makes no difference; there are stories of assault at nine and harassment at 60. Once, I didn’t think twice about a man telling me to smile. And maybe that man in the hallway didn’t think much of it either – he was probably just trying to be nice to a girl who was standing off by herself. Yet if a man stands in a dark hallway at the back of a dance club, I’m willing to bet the other guy walking past doesn’t flash a grin and say, “Smile!”

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By Katie Stobbart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: July 3, 2013

I’m in a dark hallway, waiting for my friend to come out of the bathroom, when I hear someone say this. I assume he’s an employee of the dance club, since he has just disappeared through a door in the back. And the last time I went dancing a few months ago, a stranger briefly entering my personal space and telling me to smile may not have bothered me.

This time, I picked up on it. A week previously, a friend shared a video on Facebook about the Everyday Sexism Project, and the posts women (and men) around the world wrote about their experiences really made me think.

The project was started just over a year ago by a British woman, Laura Bates. On everydaysexism.com and on Twitter under #shoutingback, people were invited to post their experiences with sexism and sexual harassment.

“Women weren’t talking about this, myself included,” Bates says in a short video about the project after describing her own experience of a stranger groping her on the street. Since starting the project, over 25,000 men and women have shared their stories.

“I thought maybe 10 or 20 or 100 of my friends would add their stories … you can’t silence somebody when they have 25,000 other voices behind them saying, ‘I believe you, and it’s happened to me too.’”

The stories range from discrimination at work, to comments made in social situations, to incidents of sexual assault and rape. Many of the stories are about street harassment – women afraid to walk out their door wearing shorts, or too embarrassed to say anything when men make lewd remarks.

Age makes no difference; there are stories of assault at nine and harassment at 60.

Once, I didn’t think twice about a man telling me to smile. And maybe that man in the hallway didn’t think much of it either – he was probably just trying to be nice to a girl who was standing off by herself. Yet if a man stands in a dark hallway at the back of a dance club, I’m willing to bet the other guy walking past doesn’t flash a grin and say, “Smile!”

Part of the project’s goal is to create awareness about incidents that often go unnoticed. A person doesn’t necessarily have to be sexist to make sexist comments; it’s so entrenched in our society that it has become “normal.” Often, it seems that people don’t notice what happens, and the Everyday Sexism Project is an opportunity for people to speak up, even belatedly, and “shout back.”

Once, a guy told me I should take off my glasses when I was dancing because glasses aren’t pretty. Once, a guy pushed me up against a wall and groped me after I said no. I left without saying anything, because I thought maybe I had done something to encourage him. Maybe it was my fault.

I’m lucky – I’ve only had a few negative experiences, especially compared to the amount of stories on Everyday Sexism. And I know that not all men are like this. But it’s alarming to me how normalized sexism is. It worries me that there are so many women who are talked to like they are solely sexual objects, that in many cases it’s assumed that wearing a skirt is an invitation, and that there are women out there who have been told, “maybe you shouldn’t go dancing/jogging/walking anymore, if you don’t like that response.”

A catcall is not a compliment. It makes most women uncomfortable. It perpetuates the idea that women are objects to be admired, not real people who are on their way to the grocery store. A wolf whistle does not make me feel attractive or admired; it makes me feel self-conscious and angry. Telling me to smile makes me wonder why I should – because I should be happy all the time? Because a smile is more attractive than a frown? Maybe someone can explain to me why he felt compelled to say it.

I’m glad I’ve never experienced many of the stories I read. But I do have something in common with the women who have: I’m afraid. However, it’s encouraging to me that the Everyday Sexism Project has been so successful, and that there are posts like this one occasionally: “Saw an amazingly attractive woman walking down the street. Kept walking, did not bother her …”

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