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Forced smiles

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Tuesday, Oct 28, 2008

I’ve noted before Dialectic of Sex author Shulamith Firestone’s fatwa against smiling. Firestone responds to the way men often demand smiles from women (and children) and mask their aggression with this request that seems to them innocuous, almost a favor (she’ll be so much prettier if she smiles!) by calling for “a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.”


She wouldn’t be happy with this article by Carl Zimmer in Discover magazine, noted by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. The article suggests that women with their faces frozen in a smile by Botox are possibly happier because they are always smiling, and they are also consequently making others happy with their contagious expression:


People with Botox may be less vulnerable to the angry emotions of other people because they themselves can’t make angry or unhappy faces as easily. And because people with Botox can’t spread bad feelings to others via their expressions, people without Botox may be happier too.


It’s easy to imagine this being distorted into lending support to the sexist idea that women owe the world their smiles, lest they become guilty of transferring negative emotions to the world. Maybe Botox is less about wrinkle eradication (a mere alibi) than it is about making women into dolls that can only express placid agreeableness. Zimmer sensibly warns, “Making faces helps us understand how other people are feeling. By altering our faces we’re tampering with the ancient lines of communication between face and brain that may change our minds in ways we don’t yet understand.”


The ability to use our face to express what we feel—the ability not to smile—seems fairly significant. When you are being leered at, for instance, it’s probably comforting to have a sneer in your arsenal to discourage others from consuming you as an object. The idea that what our mind feels can be altered or dictated by what our body is doing involuntarily is sort of scary and probably should be resisted, not abetted. Freezing our faces into a nonexpressive mask just doesn’t seem like a good way to enhance our interactions with the world, regardless how pleasant others may find it when we are incapable of expressing displeasure.

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