By Jenny Beth Schaffer
Smiling, after a certain age, is an act of boldness and an invitation to danger because already there are enough lines and wrinkles in your face that the very last thing you want to do is aggravate the problem. Because as everyone knows perfectly well, each smile takes a tiny toll on the elasticity, the buttery lacquer of your already anxious countenance.
It’s a high-risk situation, this smile or not smile gambit, one requiring the weighing of the pros and cons, and typically you have just milliseconds to make the decision. Look no further than Wile E. Coyote to understand the consequences of split second decisions.
Someone passes on the street, a stranger perhaps, casting the sunshine of their toothiness in your direction. What. Do. You. Do? It calls for a response and it’s clear that turning to them with a bland facelessness, with the cold chill of a nothing response, dead in the eyes, limp in the facial muscles, would be, well, a rejection. Rude. So rude. And it might provoke violence.
Those of you raised properly are more likely to automatically smile back without thinking this through. The automatic, unconscious response of the nice person. The well-bred person. One who has finessed and lubricated numerous social interactions through practice and because it was beaten into you.
You’ll pay later. You’ll look like trolls, like the shrunken apple head dolls my friend Jennifer makes with the kids in her kindergarten class. Cute? Yes. Attractive? I don’t need to answer that.
Meanwhile, as a woman, you’re constantly told that you’re prettier when you smile. “What a lovely smile you have,” a complete stranger exclaims when you’re waiting for your pills at the Kaiser pharmacy. She has an incredible complexion, creamy and smooth, her eyes like giant buttons against the blank scrim of her face, just as they were when she was a toddler. Her hair, with the smallest touch of grey in it, reads as a halo against the harsh fluorescent lights casting their hellish blue glow over the sad line of people wending their way toward the irritable pharmacy assistant. Perhaps this stranger’s name is Jeanne. Or Lisa. Whoever she is, she’s setting you up and you need to be watching out for this sort of thing constantly.
However confident you are that you’re reading this situation accurately, that this is someone simply being friendly and helpful and perhaps — although this is a reach — paying you a compliment, know that you are headed down the wrong road.
This is just simple mathematics. The more you smile, the deeper the rivulets of loss and hopelessness you carve into your presentation, into your publicly displayed self-image. Your war chest. They are counting on this. The Jeannes, the Lisas, the Margarets, the Brittanys, the Leslies, in the cold calculus of their day to day strategy, they are mounting their campaign of war. They are deliberate. They are impeccable in their planning. They are generals. They are single. They want you out of the way so they can sweep through the territory, pillaging, doing violence, and stuffing the spoils into their rucksacks.
If you fall prey to this, you will prematurely age and take yourself out of the competition for the available romantic partners. And this is what they want. They want the good ones for themselves. This is evolutionary biology.
I know, I know. I know your protests, I’ve heard them all: this is just brainwashing from beauty magazines and infomercials and very insidious, strategic ad placements on Twitter. This is part of the capitalist machine. This is a pack of lies, engineered in the boardrooms of Sephora, Maybelline, in the homes of all the Kardashians — every single one — and in the outposts of obscure European countesses and baronesses shilling makeup and acupressure facelifts. I’m not going to try to stop you. You do you. You stay in denial. You carve your face up one interaction at a time.
And then you will be alone, and at your very poorly attended memorial the anemic clutch of mourners will talk about how beautiful you were on the inside.
Jenny Beth Schaffer is a physical theater artist and a writer living in Oakland, California.