Chattering Mind

Chattering Mind

All Smiles Now

I once wrote an essay called “Why Women Smile” for the women’s magazine Lear’s. More than fifteen years later, I’m still receiving checks from academic presses planning to re-run the article because, apparently, it “teaches well” in first-year college writing classes. This smile piece has also been featured in a lovely textbook called “The Writer’s Presence,” where yours truly is wedged in with writers like Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion!

But here’s the quandry: I now know that a whole chunk of my article is incorrect. Next time they call me, I’m going to say “Stop. Don’t use it. Don’t tell another generation of women not to smile. They should smile broadly.”


In the actual piece, I argue that women smile more than men because they’re insecure and want to be liked. I confess in the article that I am trying to smile less. I also say that if you fake a smile, the smile doesn’t do anything good for you.

For my research at the time, I interviewed noted psychologist and facial expression expert Paul Ekman. I remember that when the piece was published, Ekman didn’t seem so thrilled with it. He didn’t write me back. I now know that’s because he had been trying to tell me that he was conceiving of the human smile in a new way, and that the feminists who thought women should smile less weren’t approaching smiles from the right perspective. But I couldn’t hear him. Ekman then was just a short time from researching Tibetan monks and the Dalai Lama’s smiling meditations. He was on his way to substantiating that smiles–even fake plastered-on smiles–CAN indeed lift our moods and keep us happier. So actually, smiling women have had the right idea all along.


But I was so attached to the notion that feminine niceness was some kind of pathology that I couldn’t hear what Ekman–an incredibly nice guy, by the way–was telling me. Indeed, I couldn’t imagine that if you smiled while seated quietly in meditation, you would spread the energy of cheer throughout the world and rise up feeling better. I couldn’t conceive of the topic spiritually.

Since then, Ekman has published his findings. And my melancholy little prose piece (which my mother always hated anyway) is out there like the Ever-Ready Bunny banging its drum. So until I can make this wrong a right, do me a favor: Smile generously and freely. There are smile meditations all over the web. Try them. Here’s one to start with: Get happy.


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posted January 2, 2007 at 5:59 pm

I love to go back and read some of my old journals from time to time. I am always amazed at how much I have grown and learned since then. Lifes lessons are a process. I quess I’m just glad I dont have to answer to anyone for this! But you have the heart of a writer and will probably be plagued by this situation time and again, as you grow and mature beyond your previous writtings. Maybe you can ask to have a short disclaimer added to the bottom of article. Or you can believe that someone, who is where you used to be, may be inspired in a postive way as you once were.

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posted January 3, 2007 at 12:45 am

…. dare we ever question that women have had it right “all along”? LOL … :)

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posted January 3, 2007 at 4:53 am

Is it possible you’re both right and wrong insofar as your POV may have holes but your style is watertight??

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posted January 5, 2007 at 2:10 pm

There are a few reasons why women smile more then men. One is,they are putting one over on someone. Another is to try and make someone like them. Also,everything is going their way. Or they got a little.

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posted June 21, 2007 at 1:51 pm

I read the essay and enjoyed it, the world we live in today people are required to wear differnt masks with different people and it is just a practical life style

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posted October 21, 2007 at 7:22 am

I read this article with mixed feelings! I had surgery to remove an Acoustic Neuroma (a benign brain tumour) two years ago. The tumour was very large and impacting on my brainstem, and the surgeon had to cut the facial nerve to remove it. I had complete facial palsy on the operated side for 6 months, but movement has been partly restored by a nerve graft. I can look ‘pleased’ but however hard I try, I can’t produce a symmetrical smile and never will be able to. It bothers me hugely and I still feel very self-conscious about it… and predictably more so as a woman. Taking a feminist stance on this doesn’t really help me – I just want to look ‘normal’ and am in the peculiar position of being reminded of my problems every time I’m moved to smile and try to cover my face.

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