I get complimented a lot on my smile. Sometimes by people I know, but even more frequently by men I don’t know who tell me as I walk past them on the street, “Love that smile, baby.” I tend not to get creeped out by it, and generally just nod and keep walking, but I do know what those compliments mean. They mean that I have pleased a man who feels that I exist for his pleasure because I am a sexual object.
I’ve lived in neighborhoods where street harassment and catcalls are virtually non-existent, and I’ve lived in neighborhoods where they are an all-day-every-day part of a woman’s life. I generally don’t mind them and have typically not felt threatened by them, but I have also grown in my appreciation of their implications about my bodily autonomy. I know plenty of women who can’t stand to be spoken to by strangers on the street and who have quite often felt threatened by their harassers. Each encounter with a stranger on the street is different and reactions differ among women, but it’s important to remember that while some simple requests for a smile aren’t much more than petty objectification, other street encounters are life-threatening. Countless female comedians have done as many jokes about specific incidents of street harassment (myself included), and I especially love this video starring Sasheer Zamata about a late-night run-in she had with a man who asked her if she needed a walk home.
Comedians aren’t the only artists taking on street harassment. The ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile’ project is an art series by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. “The work attempts to address gender based street harassment by placing drawn portraits of women, composed with captions that speak directly to offenders, outside in public spaces,” according to the project’s website. Fazlalizadeh has allowed me to share some of her work with you here. Her portraits are powerful, and so are the whiteboard reaction photos she has taken at project-related events in New York and Chicago. Take a look:
For more on this project and to donate to the project’s Kickstarter campaign, visit http://stoptellingwomentosmile.com/.