Smiling Is My Defense Mechanism

If I had a Burger King coupon for every time I’ve been told to smile, I’d have a lifetime supply of burgers… and cheeks that ache.


A little while ago, I was asked a question that was seemingly innocent enough and should’ve warranted a straightforward yes or no answer, maybe with a little explanation to go along with it.

“Have you been smiling enough?”

For reasons that escape me, I found myself, without giving it a second thought, responding with this –

“I’ve been told to smile enough to know when I have to.”

Something about that question resonated with me in a place I had locked in a reinforced box and shoved in the far corner of my brain. You see, a smile is never just a smile. So when that little message showed up on my phone screen, it hit me like a tonne of bricks. Suddenly I found myself floating through time, looking at different versions of myself, smiling my way through straight-up questionable situations. Smiling when I consciously knew that wasn’t an appropriate reaction to have. Smiling at absolutely nothing, in a crowded room at this party, I didn’t even want to be at. Somewhere in my head, I was under the impression that if I smiled, staring at whatever was in front of me, which happened to be this pretentious Ascott-clad back of some ‘popular’ boy I can’t even recall now, I’d come off as someone that has their shit together, so to speak.

The problem is, we’ve been told so many things about this thing we call ‘smiling.’ This act of tightening your cheek muscles and baring your teeth, which is essentially what animals in the wild do to ward off predators.

We’ve been told

“Smiling makes you more attractive.”

“A smile is the most beautiful thing you can wear.”

“You should smile more.”

I write these sentences while gritting my teeth because I feel the weight they carry as I write them.

We’ve heard the phrase ‘a happy baby is a healthy baby.’ Advertisements tell us this on television that have arguably questionable sources for this information. In the presence of a child, we’re quick to break out into even more arguably questionable expressions to get this baby to smile; and then it happens, and it’s magical. But then it hits us: that is probably one of the most authentic smiles this baby will have until they get older. The fact is, the only time we’re able to feel pure, unadulterated happiness, and only happiness is when we’re too young to process emotions that are any more complex than that.

However, when we get older, life catches us by the neck and throws us off the deep end, straight into a whirlwind of emotions we weren’t prepared to face. Multiple feelings emerge at once; we feel happy and sad at the same time, we’re angry yet calm, we’re pained yet poised. And what do we do? We do the one thing our littlest self did so frequently. We put on a smile.

Which brings me to the point: smiling is, most, if not all of the time, a defense mechanism. An instantaneous reaction is not limited to any specific gender. Describing a smile isn’t a one-word answer. ‘Beautiful,’ ‘appealing,’ ‘attractive.’ These terms don’t do justice to this manifestation of a complex emotion and are as vague as an IKEA instruction manual.

‘Attractive’ – the dictionary defines this fine, fine word as ‘appealing to look at; sexually alluring.’ For the few years I have been alive, I’ve struggled to understand what truly defines the word ‘attractive.’ It’s only recently come to mind that ‘attractive’ doesn’t, and couldn’t, describe a smile (or even a person, but that’s a whole other story). What should have been the embodiment of pure, unfiltered happiness is now thrown around as if it were petty change. I’ll admit to having an equal part to play in this saddening social norm. I’ve smiled at a camera, not because I’ve wanted to, but because I knew it was the thing to do. I’ve smiled in the mirror and singled-out every muscle in my face and what it’s doing wrong to give me this ‘not-so-perfect smile.’ I’ve smiled at unwarranted insults, only because some twisted part of me believed that smiling right then made me look immune to the hurt I felt. Though while it might have made me look like I didn’t care for the insults, I couldn’t rub them off if I tried.

It has been said that acceptance is the first step towards change. I’ve accepted this defense mechanism, and I catch myself multiple times throughout the day, smiling when I’m not happy on the inside. I consciously monitor my face because, after years of being told to smile, part of me no longer wants to listen. This will come with surprising backlash, I imagine. But it’ll be worth it. Because when I smile, I will truly be happy.

While there’s going to be days when I’m going to have to fake a smile, I will – being fully aware of what it means and what it serves as a reminder of. As for anyone that asks me to put on a smile, I will politely serve up some much-needed resting bitch face. If the situation allows, I might even enlighten them with this little nugget of awareness in the hope that nobody else has to hear that overused sentence ever again.

So, to conclude this in-depth analysis of my own defense mechanism, I’ll leave your readers with some food for thought. This is your smile, and it carries a weight that only you alone can fully comprehend. You are under no obligation to put it on display. You are not on display. Because when you have that magical moment of pure happiness, you won’t have to fake it. It’ll always be there, waiting for the right time to beam like a thousand suns and infect the galaxy.

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