This article was amended for clarity and also for factual accuracy regarding the author’s use of email screenshots. This was done on 18/06/19 following a discussion between the The Saint’s editorial team, the author, and The Lafayette Club on the same day.
Marina Rivera is a female student at the University of St Andrews and had been previously offered a place on The Lafayette Club’s committee.
Today was an important milestone in my professional career and unfortunately quite a degrading one. After going through a standard application and interview process for The Lafayette Club, a well-regarded club in St. Andrews, I was ecstatic to receive news that I had been accepted onto the committee based on my credentials and interview. I quickly accepted the offer to join the club for the upcoming 2019/20 year.
Yet, in less than three weeks of receiving my acceptance, prior to any official meetings, a member of the club informed me that my position in the club was being brought to an end. His message read, “Given your lack of response, we assumed that you no longer wish to be part of the club.”
I assumed that there had been a grave misunderstanding as I had clearly accepted the position, and our most recent email interaction did not merit a response or require explicit action. Nonetheless, I apologised for not responding to his recent email, accepted responsibility for the perceived mistake, and ultimately respected his decision to let me go.
At this point, the director of the society felt it was necessary to further his reasoning as to why I was dismissed from the club:
I believe that there are a number of ways in which these emails are problematic. He clearly states that he was “surprised I had not acknowledged any of the team around town,” at which point I reminded him that, to the best of my knowledge, I had not yet had the opportunity to meet any members of the team, apart from a couple during a five minute interview. If I failed to acknowledge a club member, it was likely due to the fact that I simply had never met them.
In being told that I failed to deliver a “simple smile,” I thought it became quite evident that the broader issue was deeper than the lack of a response to an email. Someone along the way had taken personal offence to my natural outward demeanour and it was clearly being held against me. I often walk through town minding my own business, getting from point A to point B, trying to minimise the likeliness of bumping into everyone I know.
While navigating my busy life in the bubble I should not have to consider that I am offending anyone because my natural attitude is not ecstatically happy. At some point, knowing nothing about me, someone prematurely judged my ability to “build friendship and rapport” due to my lack of smiling, prioritising it over my impressive credentials and interview. That seems exceptionally unfair. Is my worth determined by having a fake smile plastered across my face at all times?
Not only did I find the request to smile at passing members of the club I had no chance of recognising somewhat insulting, I also found it quite the shock. As the email snippet below from earlier in my conversation with the club shows, the Lafayette Club was very cordial with me at one point. As to why there was a sudden and marked change in tone in emails following the misunderstanding (see above) is beyond me.
Smiling should be a natural gesture of delight, not a mechanism to control. The unsolicited advice I received from this particular gentleman regarding how I should behave, look, and feel, was condescending and wholly unwelcome. Men telling women to “smile” should, in my opinion (and in the opinion of many modern feminists), be seen as sexual harassment in the workplace as it demands that a woman behave in a way that is passive, unintimidating, and inherently “feminine.”
Before even having the chance to prove myself on the committee, I failed to meet the expectations of how “smiley” I should be. These unwarranted comments by my male colleague regarding my demeanour are an example of how women are disproportionately reprimanded for possessing characteristics that are understood as “intimidating” and “unfeminine.”
The sexualisation behind men telling women to smile is alarming. In corporate sexual harassment training, men have to be specifically warned not to comment on a woman’s apparent mood or imply how they should behave to seem more desirable. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was sweeping the Midwest in the primaries, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough singled out Mrs. Clinton, attacking her campaign and commanding her to “smile.” After starring in ‘Captain Marvel,’ actress Brie Larson received extensive criticism for not “smiling enough.”
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an artist based in Brooklyn, New York, even created the platform StopTellingWomenToSmile.com, to combat the phenomenon of street harassment, noting how telling a woman they should “smile” is degrading. Bené Viera commented to the Huffington Post that “men tell women to smile because society conditions men to think we exist for the male gaze and for their pleasure….essentially what a man is saying when he tells a woman — one he doesn’t even know — to smile, is that his wants outweigh her own autonomy over how she exists in the world.”
No woman should have to bear the weight of constant friendliness and happiness as a determinant of our success. We should not have to put on a matronly smile to avoid being called a “bitch.” There is a pervasive entitlement over a woman’s behaviour which favours the merit of a smile to the merit of a task. It appears that my “RBF” (or Resting Bitch Face) took precedent over my work ethic or professionalism.
There is a heavy undercurrent of sexism in these seemingly benign comments. At the heart of it, telling someone that you expect them to smile disregards their inner emotional state, and dictates how they should behave to make you feel comfortable.
While being commanded to smile is invasive for both men and women, it disproportionately happens to women because of the expectation that we should maintain a pretty, warm, care-free, and positive facade. Every woman I know has experienced street harassment, discrimination, cat-calling, or being told to “smile” and “behave like a woman.”
We are tired of hearing it.
I am trying to look at this experience as the first of many times that being an assertive and confident woman will pose as a challenge in my professional life. In having to display performative male-centric confidence to assert myself, I will also have to consider that my colleagues will rebuke me for not being sensitive and sweet. Personally, I find it quite exhausting to constantly smile, and I save the energy to smile for moments of genuine happiness. People who invest time in getting to know me can attest to the fact that I am fun-loving, kind-hearted, and exceptionally hard-working. Hence, I will not apologise for other people’s poor judgement of character.
At first, I was afraid to share my story for fear of retaliation, upsetting the status-quo, or being labelled as a “radical” feminist (whatever that is). While perhaps there exists an argument in which my minor miscommunication merited my hasty expulsion, I am intrigued to hear at what point my smiling tendencies became relevant. In sharing this unfortunate incident I hope to draw attention to how gender stereotypes are subconsciously reproduced in clubs that we perceive as professional, academic, and well-educated.
I hope to open the discussion as to why we should not accept discrimination at face value due to an organisation’s prestige. It is never okay to tell someone how they should look, act, or feel. And mostly, I hope to tell anyone reading this that they should never apologise for not smiling.