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Stop Telling Women to Smile: Using Public Art to Deal With Street Harassment of Women

Stop Telling Women to Smile: Using Public Art to Deal With Street Harassment of Women

If you’re a woman, there’s a big chance you’ve had someone say something along the lines of “give me a smile, baby” while walking down the street.

While from the outside this may appear harmless, it’s a form of street harassment, something that many women deal with on a daily basis, so much so that it has become a part of many women’s everyday routine. But the problem is, when something becomes so routine, it’s easy to not say anything, to simply accept it and keep walking.

Harassment is harassment, and simply being a woman does not mean that you need to smile at men, or interact with them at all. Harassment of this form assumes that men have authority over women, it assumes that women are happy, go-lucky creatures, that are walking this earth for the benefit of men.

This kind of harassment, no matter how many positive words are involved, is not seen as a compliment.

A new street art campaign aims to take on this type of harassment, forcing us to see the gender-based street harassment for what it is and to think about it.

“Stop Telling Women to Smile” is public art project created by the Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. As she puts it, it’s her “way of speaking back to my harassers.” The idea is to humanize women in public spaces, using art to give voices and bodies to the women that are sexualized in the street. From StopTellingWomentoSmile.com:

“Street harassment is a serious issue that affects women worldwide. This project takes women’s voices, and faces, and puts them in the street – creating a bold presence for women in an environment where they are so often made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe.”

Fazlalizadeh’s drawn portraits are accompanied with statements that speak directly to the harasser, like “women are not outside for your entertainment,” “my outfit is not an invitation,” and “harassing women does not prove your masculinity.”

The project started in Brooklyn in 2012, and the goal is to take it to cities across the country. Want to take the art project with you wherever you go? There’s also a Stop Telling Women to Smile t-shirt.

But such a project doesn’t come without controversy. As Fazlalizadeh wrote on her blog, “The STWTS posters are often defaced with gendered insults and abusive language and imagery. When it happens, it highlights the type of abuse that the work was initially created to speak out against. But, this particular defacement is so violent. It demonstrates that women are subjected to violence and aggression from men even as a piece of art.”

In a world where there is plenty of unwelcome, unwanted commentary directed at women, hopefully this will create a space for women to speak up for themselves, and also remind our culture that street harassment is not a small thing and that we should all be working to stop it.

You can take part in the Stop Telling Women to Smile movement on Facebook.

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Photo Credit: Stop Telling women to Smile

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124 comments

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9:30AM PDT on Jul 2, 2014

Barb D., it would be lovely if that was a safe thing to do. Unfortunately, first-hand experience tells me otherwise.

One time when I was being harassed on my way back to my apartment block, I had enough and did exactly that - I flipped the guy the bird. He suddenly got really angry and started running towards me yelling profanities, and he chased me all the way back to my apartment block (which was just across the street, thank goodness). Even after I'd got inside, he tried to follow me in, but luckily was thwarted by the security system (needs a card to unlock the main door).

It's a sad fact that there are some guys out there who will take ANY rejection - even the rejection of their crude catcalling and other verbal harassment - as a personal attack and will get angry and violent about it. Certainly, it's not all or even most guys, but I'd rather not take the chance of getting them mad, after that experience. As much as I'd LOVE to be just as rude to them as they are to me.

9:12AM PDT on Jul 2, 2014

We always have the option of giving them the Finger instead.

11:48AM PDT on Jun 12, 2014

If guys don't know what 'respect' feels like, telling them to 'respect women' is a lost cause.Some people don't even know when you are being respectful toward them. I'm not sure how they read that vibe, but it's possible that it makes them suspicious.

3:34AM PDT on Jun 9, 2014

This has happened to me in so many situations, on the street, at work, in class, etc. and I've never, not once, seen it happen to a man. Maybe it does, but if it does it's pretty damn rare. It IS harrassment, even though it seems innocent enough at a glance, it's part of the whole. The mentality that says women are toys there to entertain men on command.

I don't think this is saying women shouldn't smile. Just that they shouldn't be told to. These same men most certainly would not say that to another man in passing. But yes, everyone should smile if they feel like smiling, and often. It's contagious. It's lovely!

2:49AM PDT on Jun 9, 2014

I was never asked to smile, I have been frequently asked why I'm laughing when I'm 'just' smiling...

9:44AM PDT on Jun 8, 2014

The poster is right on, but NEED another slogan like D I S C R E T I O N

9:15PM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Stop street harassment! Respect women.

3:53PM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

I really love this article, because it's happened to me to me too. Just last week, I had to tell someone off because of their unwelcome comments about the way I dressed (even though it is conservative as is). I did not ask for the feedback, so I agree with the phrase in the video "Keep your comments about my body to yourself" as well as "Stop Telling Women to Smile." I had that too, and it particularly pissed me off when I was having an incredibly stressful day and was not in any mood to entertain the male individual who INSISTED this of me even when I said "NO. I'm not in the mood".

*sigh* Some men honestly don't get it.

11:33AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Thanks for sharing.

8:08PM PDT on Jun 4, 2014

Lisa H, I smile at people all the time, but not if I'm told to! My other comment referred specifically to women on TV in interviews, especially actors or models.

Even discussing something quite serious, they feel obliged to smile, which looks wrong to me. I don't notice the same with their male counterparts.

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