Balancing Act

Time to stop expecting women to smile on command

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Smile -- or don't

Smile -- or don't (Jennifer Polixenni Brankin / Getty Images)

"Where's my smile, babydoll?"

The "babydoll" bugged me more than the query itself, but the whole thing is obviously pretty obnoxious. It's objectifying, it's bossy, it's presumptuous.

Still, I smiled.

It's a habit. I smile at people when I walk by them — at work, in stores, on the street. I'm friendly. I like when people stop me and ask for directions. Plus, I can think of (and have heard) far worse walking along the sidewalk.

This time, though, I cringed a little afterward.

I'm ruminating on the smile thing lately — had talked about it with a co-worker just an hour before the "babydoll" incident, in fact — thanks to Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's public art series, "Stop Telling Women to Smile."

Maybe you've read about it. Fazlalizadeh is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and painter whose portraits of women are traveling to city streets around the country — from Boston to Chicago, from Brooklyn to Oakland. Her drawings place women above captions that read, "You Are Not Entitled to My Space," "Stop Telling Women to Smile," "My Name is Not Baby, Shorty, Sexy, Sweetie, Honey, Pretty, Boo, Sweetheart, Ma."

(Babydoll, either.)

"You're treated as though you're just a piece of meat, and you're there for consumption by men," Fazlalizadeh told Mother Jones magazine. "I feel like the common thing is men feeling entitled to treat you how they want to treat you. You never feel as though you have a right to the space. And so that's the theme behind most of the posters: 'I'm not outside for your entertainment' and 'I'm not seeking your validation.'"

I totally agree. So why do I have a hard time shutting down the possibly innocent (but maybe kind of harassing) smile commands from the mail room guy, the grocery bagger guy, the barista guy, the stranger-who-called-me-babydoll guy?

I think it's because I dread, more than having to endure pointless directives, a culture where we're so afraid of offending each other that we stop trying to engage at all.

I realize we're a long way from that. And "Where's my smile, babydoll" is hardly a meeting of the minds. But I think my willingness to play along is at least partly rooted in the hope that somewhere, deep down, most of us have something to offer each other.

I was hoisting my son into a Target cart one day when a frantic dad approached me lugging his own toddler son.

"I swear I'm not just asking this because you're a mom," he said. "But what temperature is considered a high fever?"

Some interaction (or series of them) left him afraid I'd be offended at his assumption that I know "mom" things. I wasn't. I wanted to hug him, actually. He looked so nervous. (I resisted.)

But I think we're walking around with more people like that dad — well-intentioned, searching — than people like babydoll-guy. So I hesitate to put my guard up too awfully high. I'd hate to train myself not to smile.

Still, I love what Fazlalizadeh is doing with her project and I hope it continues to foster a dialogue about private lives in public spaces, gender-based power imbalances and our culture of objectivity.

I also hope men and women (and men and men, and women and women) continue to look for ways to engage each other in authentic, non-creepy ways — even if we're just killing time on the train platform.

Also, guys: If you truly want to make a women smile, you shouldn't call her babydoll.

You should compliment her shoes.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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