Since my mum was diagnosed with stage four cancer at the beginning of this year, I’ve been waiting for something very specific to happen. In a completely masochistic way, I’ve been looking forward to the moment, on the way to or from the hospital perhaps, some absolute yowling wanker tells me to smile.
In case you’re not a woman, let me quickly explain something: women aren’t allowed to be sad in public. It’s frowned (ha) upon. By men, for the most part. And as a woman, you get used to being told, if you have the audacity to look like anything other than a pissed up Teletubby in the outside world, to “smile”. By strangers. Because – presumably – your un-ecstatic expression is aesthetically displeasing to them.
It happened to me once, a few years ago, when I was going through a particularly severe depressive episode. My mum was driving me home from a therapy session, when a man on the street saw my face and yelled, “SMILE”. The car window was already wound down, and, immediately, I yelled back a heavily adrenal, “CUNT”. I like to think that, via the Doppler effect, the one syllable was stretched into, “CUUuuuuuunt”.
So why on earth, since finding out my mum is terminally ill, would I want this to happen to me again? The answer is simple and brutish: I want to let rip. I’ve been saving all my rage at the universe for the first person who, entirely ignorant of what my family and I are going through, sees fit to try and edit my face into something more idyllic. Last week, it happened. Not to me, but to my girlfriend. She was on her way to join me on a hospital visit when she got hit with an – out of the blue – “Smile, beautiful!” I only wish I’d been there to do the absolute opposite of “smile, beautiful”, on her behalf.
But what if someone told my mum to smile? Well, they kind of have. And that “someone” is the (utter lack of) brains behind a new mirror, designed for cancer patients, which only works if you smile into it. Because, God knows, the exact thing cancer patients need is a tool that imitates the behaviour of the smarmy barman who tells you that he’ll only pull your pint if he gets a smile. Based on the premise that even a forced smile can lift your mood, the high-tech, low-concept mirror uses face recognition to decide whether or not the user is worthy of being reflected. It’s one thing being told to smile in public, but being forced to play-act a happy person in the privacy of your own home is borderline dystopian.
In one particularly bad week this year, when my mum was in a medically-induced coma, I was walking out of the hospital toilets when I caught my reflection. I looked – frankly – like a slice of processed turkey with a blank expression drawn on it in permanent marker. It was interesting though, in a way. “So this is what I look like when I’m grieving,” I thought. I also noticed that I’d finally inherited my mum’s two characteristic frown lines, between my eyes. I felt possessed by her, and it was genuinely comforting. As an experiment, I actually tried to smile. It was grotesque; I was just as dead-eyed, but now with an added grimace. I can say with absolute certainty that my mood, if anything, dropped slightly. At least when I wasn’t smiling, I had a level of ownership over my sadness. My facial expression was entirely for and by me.
I should probably clarify: I’m not anti-smile. A smile is a perfectly acceptable, even nice, human thing, when it truly reflects the mood of the wearer. A forced smile is – at best – the emotional equivalent of the Halloween masks they sell at supermarket checkouts. Why not just own up to whatever you’re feeling? Other people may not like your sad face, but it’s not for them, after all.