February 18, 2014

I Don't Smile For You

I recently read this article about a study showing that Autistic children are seen as less trustworthy and friendly by their NT peers. It triggered me for many reasons - mostly because I was told to smile many times, by many people during my life. My father, too, was seen as unfriendly and intimidating. He was also told that he should smile more at work as well. In which case, he told them to go to hell because he didn't smile to anyone for their benefit. One of the many ways my father rocked.

From the study:
"Children with a diagnosis of autism were rated less trustworthy, and the watchers said they were less likely to want to play with them and to be their friend.
Dr Stagg said: “One of the key things we found with this research was that there was a difference between the children’s facial expressions and their general expressiveness.
“Typically developed children had a more subtle range of expressions, while an autistic child’s face tended to have more exaggerated expressions."

This makes sense, as I've always been told I have a very expressive face. I can easily make a caricature of myself. But to make myself seem more gentle/friendly/approachable/trustworthy in a subtle way? No clue.

Dr. Stagg just won me over with his next statement:

But, Dr Stagg believes this research emphasises the need to promote inter-social skills in both typically developed and autistic children, rather than separating them and trying to “fix” the autistic children’s development.
He said: “You don’t say to a person in a wheelchair, you need to try walking, and so you shouldn’t try to make autistic children be someone they cannot physically be.

Bingo! Yes! Bravo!

This is not to say I'm against change and improving myself. On the contrary, I am always looking for help. However, there are some things I know I will never ever be able to accomplish. Try as hard as I might, I cannot at this age or stage of my life, learn to subtly change my facial expressions. I would also argue that it's not something that an NT person can teach me. It's one of those, "you have it or you don't" things. So much goes into these subtle signs, I would wager your average person is completely unaware of what or how they do what they do. Cues are probably picked up subconsciously. A lot of people take this for granted.

At the same time, the damage of telling a child that they need to smile (or do anything else with their body or behaviour) in order to make others more comfortable is lifelong and affects self-esteem. It takes away their body autonomy as well. It sets them up for trying to become pleasers for other people's benefit.

I can't tell you how many times I was told:

"Smile, you'll look so much more pretty!"
"You look angry! Try smiling more. You have a lovely smile. I want to see it."

"People will like you more if only you smile."
"I don't want to see you with that face."
"Stand up straight and smile so I can look at you properly."
"You'd be beautiful if only you smiled."

I was told this by teachers and other authority figures. I was told this by family members. I was told this by both males and females. I was told this by peers. 

Luckily, probably because of my head-strong father, by the time I was a teen, I did not smile on command. I told people I would smile when I felt like smiling. I told people I was tired of being told I wasn't attractive when I wasn't making the correct facial expression for them. I told them I did not smile for anyone else's benefit.

My body does not exist for your benefit. I'm not a puppet you can play with. My emotions will not change for your benefit. My body is my own and I will do as I please with it. My attractiveness, or perceived lack thereof, has nothing to do with what you think of it. If you are uncomfortable looking at my body or face, I kindly ask you to look away and keep your opinions to yourself.

If you really want to know how I feel, you can ask me and then believe me when I use my words to tell you. But you don't get to change the way I present myself to you. And please don't ask anyone else to do so either.

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