I was putting my three-year-old daughter back in the grocery-store cart, walking away from the motorized pony—the one that somehow only costs a penny and that I let her ride as many times as she wants because who knows how long I will be able to make her so happy for just a penny—when it happened.
An old man, leering from his perch on the bench, unsteady on his feet but still quick to lurch towards us, pointed a wrinkly hand toward her and raised his voice.
"Hey!" he shouted, his cane shaking with the effort of holding him up. "Hey, you! Smile, princess!"
My daughter's face immediately crumpled into a frown at him and my body felt electrified with the shock of this happening already to my preschooler. I quickened my pace, propelling my cart forward. But he persisted—following us and re-doubling his efforts.
"SMILE, princess!" he shouted louder, as we came neck-and-neck with him. "SMILE!"
I shot him the dirtiest look I could and fled from him, shielding my daughter with my body. He continued to chase us as long as he was able, past the registers and to the door, where he yelled louder and louder at my daughter.
As we escaped out into the open air of the parking lot, I watched her try to process what had just happened and I felt shaky with fear, rage and helplessness. Tears pricked my eyes as my mind flashed forward to what life will hold for her, all blonde hair and blue eyes, for what will happen when I will no longer be there to protect her. And I watched, with a heart that felt split in two, as my daughter, still sitting in the front cart, cowgirl-booted feet swinging and brow furrowed, finally looked up at the sky...
And flashed a huge, fake smile.
In that moment, I realized that, even at the tender age of three—barely out of diapers, just learning about the world, happy to fly free on a pony for a penny at the grocery store—my daughter had already absorbed one of the most damaging lessons that all female will eventually learn in their lifetime: to conform to the wishes of a male.
Only three and already my daughter had made the difficult decision of balancing what she wanted—maybe she didn’t feel like smiling right then, OK?—to what this man was telling her she needed to do. Already, she'd made the choice to do what he told her to do, even if he was loud and weird and scared her.
And yes, maybe it was a small thing, and he was just an innocent old man, and maybe you're rolling your eyes and scoffing at the millennial mother who is offended by everything. But you know what? I am a woman who has grown up experiencing what it’s like to be told by random men to smile. It feels like just yesterday that I walked into my gym after getting the news that the baby I was carrying had died inside of me, and as I was standing in line, waiting to use the bathroom, some guy flashed a smile at me.
“Smile, princess,” he said. “It can’t be that bad.”
Except it was that bad. And let’s get down to the real heart of the matter here. The problem is most men's deeply held, unconscious belief that women should always look their best, put on smiles with made-up faces, and prance like show ponies, to live in their world. Heaven forbid a woman have a bad day, or be struggling with depression or, I don’t know, have a baby dead inside of them that day, and express emotion. Heaven forbid a three-year-old be frowning as her mom pushes her through the grocery store on a winter afternoon.
The truth is, my heart broke for my daughter that day. Not just because I had to face the fact that there will always be men in her world to harass her for her appearance, smiling or not—but also because she smiled when he told her to.
My heart broke for my other daughters, who have already started shifting their appearances when a male is nearby; they might fix their hair or straighten their shoulders or plaster on an awkward smile when that weird guy at the party talks to them. Always deferring, always assuming they must tolerate whatever weird behavior is thrown their way because as women, we learn pretty darn early that creepy guys are a part of our world and confronting them only garners us the, “Whoa, don’t get crazy, I was just joking” statements we all know and love.
My heart broke for all of us, because as women, we learn to navigate in a world to protect ourselves, never fully free, always cautious, and quick to write off each and every inappropriate man we encounter. We learn that we must hide our true selves at times to pave the way for the weirdos.
And it continues. My heart breaks for all my daughters, as I watch them grow up in a world where so much work has to be done for women to be free to just smile when they want to smile and frown when they want to frown.
Because, honestly, if it starts with a three-year-old deciding that it’s just easier to smile when the weird old guy demands her to, where exactly does it end?