May I Be Smiling
Smiling, Sexuality, and Happiness
“The act of smiling affects your brain and your mood, making you feel happy and alleviating depression. It facilitates social connections and even improves your immune system. Close your eyes. Nobody is looking. And smile.” I directed my yoga students, hoping William Broad wasn’t listening. He’d probably mock me as an unrigorous yoga teacher. But I’ve read up on the studies. And I’ve felt it in my body. As my yoga ladies smiled at me, trustingly, I smiled back, so happy to share my yoga with them.
I have not always been a smiler. Indeed, I have spent much of my life shy with downcast eyes; aloof with a polished and mysterious don’t-touch-me façade; or intimidatingly serious with an I’m-smarter-than-you bravado. None of these personas allowed for genuine warm smiles and honest open eye contact. No happiness allowed. That’s okay, because I was too busy to bother with being happy.
Recently, as I have consciously decided that I do not want to be depressed or anxious any more and that achievement is grossly overrated, I have experimented with choosing to smile more and to make eye contact. The results are dramatic. I am much happier and much more connected with friends and family. So simple. So complicated.
As a girl, as a pretty girl, the messages were mixed.
- Don’t speak to strangers. There are bad guys out there.
- Don’t flirt or show off your body – it’s demeaning. You are too smart for that.
- Don’t brag about how smart you are. No one likes a braggart.
- Men are dangerous. They only want one thing.
The horrific story of the young woman who was gang raped in India last December transfixed me. Ostensibly, because of the new and extraordinary uprising in India against the violence. Finally! Really though, it was because it was repellant and frightening. One reaction caught my eye. Sonia Faliero wrote of being a teenager in New Delhi, in a society where harassment against women is the norm.
As a teenager, I learned to protect myself. I never stood alone if I could help it, and I walked quickly, crossing my arms over my chest, refusing to make eye contact or smile. I cleaved through crowds shoulder-first, and avoided leaving the house after dark except in a private car. At an age when young women elsewhere were experimenting with daring new looks, I wore clothes that were two sizes too large. I still cannot dress attractively without feeling that I am endangering myself.
While this was not my world, I recognize what she is describing. I felt the same way in suburban America! Can I go for my solitary runs? How should I dress…during the day…at night? Is this outfit too provocative? What’s the balance between flirting and being taken seriously? If I smiled and made eye contact with a boy – or scarier, a man – how would he interpret my warmth? What if I don’t mean it to be sexual? What if I can’t say no? What if he doesn’t take no for an answer? Smiling suggested sexual availability. My fear and ambivalence towards my sexuality kept me closed off, unsmiling, unhappy.
I see the young women in my life still struggling with this. They – we – are all beautiful women and we want our beauty to shine. We don’t want it to be our only defining quality, and we want to be safe. They carry pepper spray. They alternate between sexy, assertive and proper, obedient. Their assertiveness usually is more apparent when they are in a group – a group gives them courage and protection. Alone, they are quieter. I see it in their posture (shoulders rounding forward protecting their heart and their breasts, not open). I see it in their obsession, my obsession, our obsession with body image – sometimes too heavy to be date-worthy, sometimes too thin to be voluptuous. Never allowing our selves to be just right. Beautiful just as we are.
As I’ve gotten older, the catcalls have stopped. Now, when walking in Times Square, after the hawker shouts at the pretty blonde girl “Hey Beautiful!” and she haughtily ignores him with a familiar-to-me uplift of her chin, the man shouts at me “Hey Executive Lady!” I crack up and smile at him. He is harmless to me. But it didn’t used to feel that way. All that armor I put on, unsmiling downcast eyes with my stiff ballerina posture kept me distant from people, untrusting and unhappy. Do we have to be post-menopausal to lose our fear? Can’t women be beautiful and sexy and safe and warm and smart and happy? Especially the young women who are so physically beautiful and can’t enjoy it with ease and confidence.
No, that comes later, when the physical beauty is less overt, less constrained by social norms. In Cyndi Lee’s brave and wonderful new book, May I Be Happy, she speaks with Dr. Christiane Northrup who says, “…sixty is when life really begins. You don’t take anything seriously anymore. It’s a very exciting time.” I can’t wait.