A man asked me to smile, this is what I think about it

By Mary Janevic

“Hey, come on, let’s see a smile!” The white-haired man in the gym called to me as I hustled from locker room to class, late as usual.

I grinned back at him, over my shoulder.

I spent the next hour jumping and lunging to make myself stronger, while wondering if my smile was a sign of weakness. Had I just reinforced sexist behavior? Should I have ignored him? Glared? Told him to smile?

This happened very recently. I’m solidly in midlife now, and I have been handing out smiles to men upon request for decades. At one time, I thought they asked me because I looked angry, or vacant, or had some other unappealing expression in need of a quick fix. Kind of like I had toilet paper dragging from my heel. (Oops! Thanks for telling me!)

But I have since learned that it’s ridiculous to change my expression into one that a stranger prefers, no matter how my features happen to be arranged. I know now that it is only women who get asked to do this, and only men who do the asking.

I realized that I smiled at the guy in the gym not in spite of this awareness, but because of it.

My smile was, in part, a sympathetic one. A yeah, that’s how things used to be smile. Like he and I were reminiscing about pay phones and traveler’s checks and rabbit-ears on the TV. See, until very recently, comments like his meant flattery. That’s how men saw it, anyway, which means that’s how women were supposed to see it, too.

But getting verbal attention from strange men is not as great as they might think. In its most benign form—a request for a smile, for instance — there’s no real harm done. Yet it still feels awkward. And it just gets worse from there. (What woman hasn’t dreaded walking past a group of men just up ahead, braced for whatever they were going to say?)

So was it gym-guy’s fault that he missed the memo (To: Men /From: Women /Re: Change in Smile Request Policy)? Can we blame older people when they fail to meet evolving standards for respectful social interactions? Of course we can/can’t. Questions about blame always make my brain hurt, because, honestly, we’re all kind of flawed. The bottom line is that I could understand where this man, raised in a different era, was coming from.

Which made me think about the era my own kids are growing up in. I smiled thinking of how things have changed.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I thought feminism began and ended with the freedom to achieve professional goals. “You can be anything you want to be.” I heard the message, loud and clear. We Gen X girls benefited from the hard work of women in earlier generations (including the now-maligned boomers). They demanded the right to participate in all aspects of society, and put up with a lot of crap along the way.

By the time my peers and I were making decisions about our lives, no one tried to stop us from doing what we wanted to do. Turns out, that was only the first step to a more gender-equitable society.

“Dismantle the patriarchy” is a phrase that sounds so broad and ideological that it’s easy to ridicule, or dismiss. But it’s really about making everyday life work better for non-men.

Men created societal structures and norms. Not because they all got together in a room and conspired to do so, but because over the millennia society evolved, women were tucked away at home, absent from positions of power and decision-making. With very few exceptions, they also lacked opportunities to mold ideas via literature and other art (though female caregiving has enabled plenty of male artists to create). And so we’ve inherited a society that largely reflects the needs and perspectives of only one gender.

Once you accept that, it explains so many features of our everyday lives. To start with, why unwanted sexual attention has been successfully passed off for so long as harmless admiration. And why women have internalized the notion that we should just be good sports about it.

But it also explains why family leave benefits are so paltry, and affordable child care so elusive. Why we pay tax on menstrual products. Why many of us have had to pump milk in toilet stalls. Why school dress codes are preoccupied with what girls wear. Why we know next to nothing about menopause. And that’s just the familiar list.

I smiled at the man in the gym not because we’ve fixed all of this—yet—but because we have finally recognized it. Women are now calling for version-updates across increasingly diverse pockets of life: from remaking the sports system to better suit female bodies to reforming the male-oriented philosophy underlying Alcoholics Anonymous to questioning why on earth women would want to forego being collaborative and humble in the workplace in favor of male self-promotion.

I smiled thinking about what other realizations may be on the horizon. Will we begin to treat aggression like a bigger mental health problem than anxiety? Will we make the default life trajectory more flexible so that career-building and family-raising no longer have to happen in the same critical decades?

What I know for sure is that women are no longer grateful simply for being allowed to play. We are starting to change the rules. Patriarchy-dismantling is not destructive. It’s the hopeful kind of demolition you do when remodeling a home. You do it to install something more beautiful and comfortable.

Granted, home improvement projects always take longer than you want them to. But all around me I see younger generations putting on their thinking caps, rolling up their sleeves, and starting to remake society so that it is a better fit for people regardless of gender. I think about how my daughter will benefit, but also my sons. It’s a joy to contemplate.

It’s the kind of thing that, without a doubt, makes you smile. (Thanks for reminding me of all that, sir. Have a great day.)

Mary Janevic is the mother of three tween/teens. She’s counting on them, along with their Gen Z peers, to fix the world.

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