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The mirror that forces cancer patients to smile is borderline dystopian

One day, I looked – frankly - like a slice of processed turkey. But I had a level of ownership over my sadness.

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.

 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.
 

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia