Living in New York City means a lot of things. One thing that comes with the territory is a larger population of men who obscenely catcall women. Not only can catcalling be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but extremely difficult to maneuver the unwanted attention. In my own experience, most men seem to think they’re giving me a compliment, and because of that, I should be grateful. Even worse, I owe them something. For example, I have been called a bitch for not responding to said catcalls, even though I don’t owe anyone anything, even though it would be unsafe for me to respond in the first place.
One type of catcall that particularly rubs me the wrong way is when men tell me to smile. It is not as sexually obscene as others, but it contains an array of implications that are deeply rooted in misogyny. A few months ago, I was walking to my apartment when a man insisted I should smile because I’m “too beautiful to have anything to worry about.” I was infuriated. Being beautiful, and being a woman who is considered beautiful, has nothing to do with stress. That one statement belittles womanhood in every sense, as it instantly objectifies women and implies women are on the street solely to look pretty, to satisfy those who gaze. It perverts gender equality by leaving stress and “real world problems” to men.
While beauty is certainly a privilege in Western culture, privilege does not negate ill feelings, nor mean someone who is beautiful has an easier life because of it. In thinking this, it is dehumanizing another person and only valuing that person because of their physicality, not for what they can mentally offer. If the request to have someone smile is based truly around happiness, why not volunteer at a soup kitchen, a nursing home, or a hospital? Why not see a friend who is having a hard time and make them laugh?
There are men who to tell women to smile without realizing the implications it offers, which is why projects such as “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” founded by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh are crucial to creating awareness for those who don’t realize what their words mean, that their words have immense power. Words are magical, in that they establish a bond between people, whether it is positive or negative. Words are alive beyond our control once spoken; these bonds are like covenants in that they contain a power over others and yourself. Think before you speak.
Image: The Guardian
Joanna C. Valente currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is a part-time mermaid. She received her MFA in poetry writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Some of her words can be found in decomP, Thrush Poetry Journal, La Fovea, The 22 Magazine, and other places. In 2010, she founded Yes, Poetry. Her ghost resides here. @joannasaid