“Why don’t you smile?” It’s annoying how unavoidable this question can be on any sidewalk anywhere. But when it comes from a parent’s mouth, it feels different. My mom telling me to smile feels like an attack on my character and my ways of being and existing in a world that doesn’t often see me, a first-generation Ghanaian girl, as I am. No, my parents are not chasing me down the street to demand an upside down frown from me. But, they are demanding that I put on my best performance for everyone around us. And it’s exhausting.
For most of my life, my parents have called me “rude,” “difficult,” and “angry” for not smiling as much as they’d like me to. This is a particular point of contention between me and my mother. She is an unapologetic woman who valiantly speaks her mind, even if you don’t like it. When you add to our dynamic that I have always been quiet and shy, the result is a confusing mess. It’s especially important to my mother that I behave: As the only girl child in the family, she often reminds me that I am “a reflection” of her. The expectations in place for me don’t apply to my two brothers. As a child, when chores needed to be done, I was called upon first. At nine years old, I was the first and, for several months, the only one of my siblings to be woken up at 4 AM to learn how to do laundry. If I tried to complain, my mother’s deep, sharp voice quickly shut me down. While my brothers watched our favorite after-school TV shows, I was in the kitchen helping my mother clear cooking space. They weren’t continuously told how to behave, act, or feel—they were left alone.
When I was 17, my family and I traveled to a cousin’s wedding in Ottawa, Canada. It was the first Western wedding I’d attended, and, on arrival, my mother reminded me to be sociable and “look happy,” as though we were auditioning to be Canada’s Happiest Looking Family. Inside, the massive dining hall was luminous with bright light, sparkly diamond-shaped chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings, and round white tables covered in mini candles, each family separated by last name and age—I was at the kids’ table.
While the highlife music was playing and the adults feeling every ounce of malt and Guinness in their veins, my mother ushered me toward a bunch of adults I didn’t know, or didn’t remember. In our culture, it is customary to greet everyone in the room, especially elders, and everyone older than you is an aunt or uncle regardless of biological relation. I walked in circles, shaking the hands of people wearing sparkly dresses, kente cloth, suits, and greeting them in Twi, my mother tongue. Under the gnawing pressure to communicate that I was grateful to be in their presence, I wide-tooth smiled until I’d made it down the assembly line. I was exhausted from faking, and wished it was acceptable to show how I was really feeling: overwhelmed, shy, and nervous. The wedding’s scale, coupled with the questions from elders about my school and career plans, killed my confidence. I couldn’t be who I was; I had to perform, my feelings had no place here. Sometimes I think that customs, as small as they may be, can break people in ways that aren’t noticeable at first.
The following day was the traditional wedding. At my cousin’s house, the smell of jollof rice, spices, goat meat, grilled vegetables, and peanut soup mixed together wonderfully. People were running around everywhere with serving plates, kente cloth, makeup, and children in their hands. I had an exam the next day, so I escaped upstairs to study where it was quiet. I hadn’t been there long when my older brother hurried in to tell me mom was looking for me. Annoyed, I sauntered down. My mother introduced me to another aunt. I greeted her and then, not knowing what to do, stared at her like she was an alien. I’d spent so much of the previous day grinning that my cheeks were as tired as my brain. I was sick of smiling. All I wanted to do was study. As I turned around to leave, my mother caught my arm, and peered at me. In silence, she took me to the bathroom and pulled out some makeup. “If you put some on you’ll look better,” she said in a low tone.
I jerked my face away from the foundation powder and stared at my reflection. “No, I don’t need it. My face is fine,” my voice was quivering.
“It’s only a little bit. Put some on to look good,” she insisted.
This time, I jerked my whole body away. As she insisted, I resisted. As she raised her voice, I raised mine. Every time I said “No!” she said “Yes!” our opposing words bolting beyond the open bathroom door. She tried to stare me down into obedience. I looked to the floor to hide my tears. Eventually, I stopped talking. She didn’t.
“Your face looks ugly. You have to look good. Why are you squeezing your face? You’re at a wedding!”
I wanted to leave, but turning my back on my mother would be even worse than disagreeing with her. I stood still and took her words, even though they hurt. I was crying, hoping that maybe she’d realize that she was hurting and embarrassing me. Instead she lowered her voice only when she realized people were now staring in at us, and continued. The aunt I had just met came into the bathroom and told my mom to chill in Twi. She looked wry, as though she knew the same thing I did: that this had happened before, and would happen again.
I’ve figured out that when my mother tells me to smile and stop squeezing my face, she is telling me that it isn’t acceptable to appear unhappy. And she is right. Black girls are so often presumed aggressive, angry, or scary—it almost makes sense that my mother bombards me with messages that I should look happy, regardless of how I actually feel. But, for girls like me who end up internalizing that message, it becomes harder as we grow older to even feel all of our feelings. We can have a lot of trouble trying to be ourselves when people—in my case, my mother—are trying to make us into who they think we should be. Whether it is to protect us, to keep us in our place, or to adhere to an image of respectability, it keeps our voices beneath the surface of our souls so that when we need to scream, sometimes we can’t.
It has become (and unfortunately still is) my defense mechanism to smile about everything; it’s how I hide from difficult feelings. I’m severely injured? Smile. I received bad news? Smile. I’m uneasy about a situation? Smile until my face hurts. But by performing for others, I lose the opportunity to know intuitively why particular situations make me feel a certain way, and how to sit with those emotions and handle them. My mother saw smiling for other people as normal; I learned this mode of silence from her. I wonder how many of her feelings she couldn’t feel because she was taught not to.
Trying to live life as your authentic self is difficult, especially when you realize that you can’t control how people view you, and they might interpret your self-assertion as “rudeness” or “disrespect.” In a perfect world, everyone would see me as I see myself—a shy, quiet yet outgoing black girl. But we aren’t there. Even now, I’m afraid to break the cycle of smiling—what would it be like to be a version of myself no one has ever seen before? It’s scary, partly because I want the people in my life to accept this new person as someone worth investing in, listening to, and taking seriously—especially when I say “No.” I want to appear approachable within this skin. I want to be respectful and respected. I’m having a hard time reconciling those wants with my need to feel in control of myself and who I am. But at least now, I’m paying attention to my feelings, and all the ways they make me a full person with emotions that fluctuate, go dormant, resurface, and change. ♦