There’s a part of me that cringes when a little child falls over and everyone, including me, quickly tells them ‘you’re ok’ before they have a chance to cry.
Maybe I’m projecting, but all I hear is you’re ok – and even if you’re not, pretend you are, because it’s just easier for everyone if you smile…
Smile for the camera…
Because when people aren’t smiling, we all feel a little unsettled…
Watching Grace Tame refuse to smile with ScoMo – made me feel uncomfortable before I felt proud of her – and my own reaction made me cringe.
Actually, it’s more than a cringe – it’s rage mixed with fury.
Fury at the way we’re indoctrinated from the very beginning to believe that other people’s opinion of us are more important than our own self-expression.
Sometimes I interview people while they share stories on camera, and they often tear up or break down – then there’s an onslaught of apologies – and I say ‘you wouldn’t apologise for laughing so don’t apologise for crying’ – and I repeat it to myself again and again – you wouldn’t apologise for laughing so don’t apologise for crying.
You wouldn’t apologise for laughing so don’t apologise for crying.
I think it’s the pretending that gets under my skin the most, the way we are all taught, in a million subliminal ways, to never be honest about how we feel, even with ourselves.
In our family photo album there’s a photo of me, around 9 or 10 maybe, wearing what I assume were Clarks sandals, a poka-dot dress, and (if I remember correctly) a large straw hat…and I’m sitting on one of those coin-machine rides in a shopping centre, looking sulky and angry – not a smile in sight.
I remember the lectures from that day, the hot reprimands for not being happy or pleasant enough, the threats and growling disappointment in my behaviour. The declarations that I was being a brat, I was embarrassing everyone, I was selfish. I remember feeling everything, feeling alone, feeling lost in a world where all anyone wanted from me was a smile.
A fake smile, a real smile, no one cared – as long as I was smiling.
I look at that photo and I don’t cringe.
I love that photo – it’s one of my favourite photos of my childhood.
I am so proud of the girl in that photo. Every time I see that little pained face, I want to walk up to her, give her a hug and tell her she’s just fine, there’s nothing wrong with having a bad day – I want to tell her that she can sulk and feel how she feels, respond to all her emotions, not just the happy ones.
I want to tell her she isn’t being rude, or a brat, or selfish, she’s just human – and she’s swimming in big emotions which is one of the most human things us humans can do.
God, I wish she was celebrated for being her full self.
I wish she was encouraged to be more than happy.
I wish she was allowed to sulk and explore her own soul.
I wish she was told that everyone has bad days, and she wasn’t doing anything wrong.
Whenever that photo would pop up over the years it was always pointed out as something for me to be ashamed of – but I’ll never be ashamed of that girl – and I wished I stood up for her more in the past – I wish I gave her the voice she needed sooner.
She’s the part of me that everyone has tried to kill, tried to tone down, tried to discourage – she’s the best part of me – the part that I find myself fully in. The part that didn’t play along.
She’s the part that made everyone around her feel uncomfortable and they pushed that discomfort back onto me – telling me I was the problem, the issue, the broken that required the fixing.
And for a long time, I believed that.
But not anymore – it’s not a crime to not be happy, there’s nothing wrong with not smiling for the camera or being a three-dimensional human who laughs and cries, sulks and smiles.
There’s an art to holding deep emotions, to navigating sadness, disappointment, grief, anger, disgust – if I’m not honest about feeling those emotions then how can I learn how to hold space for them? How can I grow into an adult who understand they can be sad and happy at the same time – professional and authentic together, feel everything and not be overthrown by every hard thing?
I’m still untangling myself from all the mis-guided responses to my emotions. I want to be someone who is on the side of anyone who doesn’t smile enough for the camera – and if my day is ruined because someone else is having a bad day – then that’s on me – not them.
[Art by Carolina Antich]