02 Aug 2018

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh -- Stop telling women to smile

"Women are supposed to behave in a way that provides men with satisfaction, entertainment, and comfort. When you refuse, you face a penalty." -- an interview with artist and activist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

Wysokie Obcasy
Karolina Domagalska Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh -- Stop telling women to smile - NewsMavens

The following selections from Karolina Domagalska’s interview with Tatyana Fazlalizadeh appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in February 2018.

Karolina Domagalska: When was the last time someone told you to smile?

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Fortunately, no one’s done that for a long time, but, since I was a little girl, I’ve heard it everywhere in different ways: “You’re too pretty not to smile,” “Show your smile,” “Why so gloomy? You should smile.” I’ve never felt good about it. I’ve always felt that it’s harassment, because when I haven’t smiled, or when I didn’t react in any particular way, men have started disparaging me. But it never occurred to me how many people have gone through the same thing.

As soon as I made this work -- my portrait with the slogan, “Stop telling women to smile” -- I understood how universal this experience was. The project started with three posters. I also drew two other women saying: “Women are not seeking your validation.” and “My name is not ‘baby.’” I made them at the same time and posted them around the city, but it very quickly became apparent that “STWTS” evoked the greatest reaction, and it became the title of the project.

KD: Why do men care if we smile?

I think it’s connected to how women are perceived. Women are supposed to be pleasant and accessible. An emotional responsibility is placed upon us to be nice.

Women are supposed to behave in a way that provides men with satisfaction, entertainment, and comfort. When you refuse, you face a penalty, because you weren’t listening and didn’t do what, in their opinion, is their right to ask for.

This happens everywhere, even in politics. When Hillary Clinton ran for office, people said she always had pursed lips and should smile more. It is unbelievable that a woman of such intelligence and power is still reminded to look pleasant and nice. This treatment of women is so deeply rooted in sexism, that we regard it as normal. We always hear it, so we don’t pay attention to it.

KD: Exactly, sometimes it is very hard to grasp, but at the same time, it has a big influence on our lives.

Not all women have experienced extreme examples of harrassment, such as physical violence, being stalked or followed, but many women have experienced the microagressions of being reminded, rated, and trained. When we read the slogan on the posters, we start to pay attention and to call it out: “Yes, that’s sexism. No, I don’t want to be treated that way.” I’ve brought this project to Mexico, France, and around the U.S.-- it happens to women all over the world.

KD: I remember once we were talking about some professional questions at work, and my supervisor said, “Oh, why are you so serious?” All I did at the time was to disagree with him, and express my opinion.

Because when you’re a professional, you finish work, and suddenly you’re supposed to be pleasant and pretty like a woman. When a woman has a serious or ambivalent face, it’s instantly read as “she’s difficult, and unhappy” when her face is just normal. People don’t expect that of men. When a man has a serious or ambivalent expression it means that he’s thinking, he’s reflecting, or that he is showing any of those qualities which women are not entitled to have.

Whether it’s in school or at work, we’re not allowed to be treated as people, but rather we’re treated as objects who are supposed to look good and present ourselves nicely.

KD: These expectations have further consequences. When you hear comments like “Smile,” or “Why the long face?” you start to think that something is wrong with you.

People use the formula, “resting bitch face”. That generally refers to the face of a woman who, because she isn’t smiling, looks like she’s unpleasant or nasty, as if she were a bitch. Many women use this expression in reference to themselves. I don’t use it. I don’t like to characterize my face in any way. It’s just my face, period.

KD: On one of your works you’ve placed the slogan: “Do the work to unlearn your sexism.” How do you do that?

First of all, men should realize that they are sexists. Only then can they begin to change things. Of course all of this starts with socialization, when boys are taught what it means to be a man, what masculinity is, and how they should treat women. Women also learn how they should behave --“men treat me this way; I should get used to it; I have to learn to deal with it.” Turning this all around demands a lot of work, particularly in a society that continues to sanction sexism.

So first men need to think about their behavior -- “anything I’ve said or done to cause a woman to feel uncomfortable, threatened, to be afraid, to feel like a sexual object, whatever behavior caused her to feel small, because I didn’t take her opinion into consideration.” And then they should ask themselves what they can do to stop it. How can they start to support women? How can they behave, so that their friends, family, and community don’t support sexism? Men should ask themselves this every day when they wake up.

Change doesn’t happen in one day. It might take a whole lifetime. But if you are constantly aware of your actions, you have the constant opportunity to change.


Tatyana Fazlalizadeh – American artist, painter, and creator of a series of posters and murals entitled, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” which evolved into an international campaign against sexual harassment.

Translated from the Polish by David A. Goldfarb


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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