Smile, Damn It

By Kim Conrey


Marietta, Georgia

Why are you so mad? I kept asking myself as I try to slow my breathing and make sense of the anger that has me shaking. This was long before I had two daughters of my own, long before I decided to be the first person in my family to darken the door of a university, long before I decided lacking a penis didn’t mean lacking a voice. I was just a mad-as-hell 20-something standing in the middle of a Winn-Dixie about to claw out a redneck’s eyes. It all started with one simple sentence.

“Smile, it can’t be that bad,” the stranger said.

Anger swirled inside me, clawed its way to the surface, and escaped the calloused clutches of my Deep South programming — all those things a woman born in backwoods Georgia knows: smile, be ladylike, respect authority, and to be anything other than friendly is the domain of Yankees and heathens.

“Maybe I don’t feel like smiling. You don’t know what’s going on in my head.” Even as I said it I began feeling sorry for this stranger — like a good Southern girl should.

“Sorrrry,” he said, before stomping away.

I cannot count how many times I was told to smile while growing up. The command usually came from a man I didn’t know. As if they’d all gotten together and decided it was their duty to keep their women grinning, pliable nincompoops. An unfriendly woman in the South I grew up in was either a bitch or uppity. Many a Southern woman is raised for the service and amusement of others. She does not belong to herself.

“Killing Me Softly With His Song” was written the year I was born, an ode to a thousand little cuts (at least to my mind, though the actual verses had nothing to do with this particular rant), culminating in the death of what a Southern girl might have been.

I remember asking my pastor why men and women weren’t treated the same in the church, to which he replied that I was exhibiting the spirit of a Jezebel — an ancient Queen of Israel, whose likes included jewelry, makeup, worshipping Baal, and threatening the biblical prophet Elijah. She was eventually thrown off her balcony and eaten by dogs. Our brief conversation ended with my pastor telling me, “I don’t make the rules, sweetheart, God does.”

It wasn’t just the men in my life sending these messages. My grandmother’s voice echoes in my head as she tells me, “Children are to be seen and not heard,” or that I wasn’t being “ladylike,” or, “Kimberly, that lipstick makes you look like a whore.”

As I perused the canned vegetables, the smile policeman returned.

“Look I didn’t mean any offense. I just think there’s always a reason to smile.” I grip the can of green beans in my hand and contemplate how it might feel to throw it at him.

“I don’t think you would have said that if I were a man,” I blurted out. Twenty-odd years of Southern-fried silence, and now I was heading off the rails.

“Sure, I would” — which I don’t believe for a second —  “and what do you have against smiling?”

“Nothing. I smile most of the time, but my dad died not long ago, and I was thinking of him when you told me to smile.” This sounded like a solid argument, but he continued.

“Oh, well, I’m sure you have some good memories of him that make you smile.”

“Look, I shouldn’t have to walk around with a smile plastered across my face just to please everyone. It’s not natural.”

“Fine. Whatever,” he said before leaving for good.

The rest of the day had me oscillating between feeling bad for this guy and blaming his kind for every Southern girl who was groped or harassed and then afraid to stand up for herself — because then she would be a real bitch. Nothing friendly about shouting, “Get your hand off my ass!” Should she acknowledge some form of anger at this injustice, she was told: “Boys will be boys.”

Now, I’m closing in on 50 and raising a teenage girl. I fight my own programming as I see her simply nodding or barely responding when a man speaks to her.

She was raised in the South. I’m friendly; what’s her deal?

Her deal is this: I’ve told her she doesn’t owe a man anything. “If something seems off, bolt. He’s a grown man or teenager and you don’t have to worry about hurting his feelings.”

Out of curiosity I ask her, “Has anyone ever said to you: ‘Smile, it ain’t that bad’?”

“No, but I think we live in the suburban safe zone,” she says, referring to the fact that we live in a town much bigger than the small domain of ignorance where I was raised.

When I’m done laughing, my first thought is, Uh oh. I think I may have painted a picture of the South so shrouded in patriarchal nonsense that she breathes a sigh of relief to be in the “safe zone.”

There are good things to being raised in the South, like barbecue, fried okra (without some sort of pretentious, wasabi-and-panko twist to it), fried catfish ... well, anything fried ... and a Zen-like way of living in the now that I’ve forgotten in my “cityfied” ambitions and worries.

It’s been years since I’ve been told to “Smile, it ain’t that bad.” Or, “You’re pretty when you smile.” I guess I’m a real hag otherwise. I don’t know if it’s because all the men likely to say that have died off, or if no one cares whether an older gal smiles, or the energy coming off me has the same spine-tingling feel one gets when hearing the racking of a pump shotgun. Sweet Lord, even my metaphors are in hick-speak.

I’d like to believe that no longer hearing the admonition to smile has less to do with living in the suburban “safe zone” or dead rednecks than with men actually valuing a woman enough to accept that it’s okay for her to have a bad day now and then.

The ancient Greek cynic, Diogenes, carried a lamp in broad daylight looking for an honest man. Apparently, they were so hard to find that sunlight wasn’t even sufficient. Given my experience, I’m inclined to believe Diogenes, but my goal is less epic.

Find me a man who thinks it’s okay for me to feel however the hell I want to feel, and I will finally get my shopping done.