Stop telling me to smile

Over my shoulder, I call towards the back of the car, “Why do you think men yell out at women on the street?” “Because they can,” came the lightning quick response from one of my twin 16-year-old daughters. We were talking about Stop Telling Women to Smile, the public art project by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh who interviews women about their experience of street harassment, draws their portrait, and uses their words to create posters for buildings and outdoor walls. Both of my daughters said they liked Fazlalizadeh’s posters because they had short, clear messages that anyone could understand.

Last year I blogged about my daughters initiation with street harassment. They were scared and tentative about taking public transportation for a while. Now, only ten months later, I feel like I am talking to experienced and disgusted young women who still don’t understand why men feel like they are entitled to their time and attention, and why they face anger and ugliness if they ignore the catcalls. They wonder how to respond and when is it the right time to say “leave me alone.” All of this feels exhausting for them, and for me knowing that so much can happen out of my sight.

Our conversation transitions to talking about how street harassment is connected to dating relationships. Do guys just turn off this behavior with a girlfriend? Do all guys do it and just not talk about it? I explain that not every guy engages in street harassment, but the fact that it goes on undermines the things you need for a loving and equitable relationship. Street harassment is not just about individual behavior. It is a part of our culture that uses fear, intimidation, or violence to give women and girls the message that they are not in control of their lives. These public art posters are so powerful because they are making women’s experiences of street harassment visible and public rather than a fleeting remark that is too often dismissed and trivialized.