We smile for the camera. We smile when someone tells a good joke. We smile when we see someone that we love. Especially when we’re young, a smile means that everything is all right, everything is fine. I didn’t smile. I couldn’t smile, really, because most of the time it was physically painful.
My teeth have always been a source of trouble. In elementary school, my baby canines had to be extracted early to make room in my jaw for adult teeth. In middle school, an impacted canine somewhere near to my nose had to be pulled down using a chain attached to my braces. In high school, an entire set of molars had to be removed to make even more space in my jaw. And in university, I had my wisdom teeth removed.
Throughout most of my younger years, I had a horrible experience with my teeth. After nearly 8 years of metal wires tugging and pulling and wrenching my teeth into place, I have a cosmetically normal looking smile.
I was never made fun of because of my braces. No one called me brace face or said they made me look like a nerd. They only asked me to smile.
Over and over and over again people asked me to smile or why I wasn’t smiling. They’d think that something was wrong or that I was depressed. I wasn’t, but the idea behind their words slowly began to gain purchase in my mind.
In middle school, I took part in a one-month long program while in school. Thrown into a room with 30 other kids, I didn’t exactly have the best first day. I was sick, tired, and nauseous. It was also one of the first days that I had my new braces. My somewhat sullen demeanour earned me the nickname Squidward, you know the surly octopus from Spongebob Squarepants.
For an entire month, I was constantly asked why I was always being so serious. I was asked why I didn’t smile, but at the time it felt more like they were reinforcing the idea that it somehow meant that I was sad. It felt like I was being bullied as people tried their hardest to make me happy by telling me that I should smile more.
It was infuriating because to smile was to inflict pain on myself. It fed into a cycle that translated into a choice not to smile, which I didn’t want at all.
As a young Matthew, what I would have helped me more than kids and teachers telling me to smile was for them to actually try to make me smile. Why not ask me how my day is going. Why not ask me to talk about something good that happened during the day. Nine times out of ten, someone would ask me “What’s wrong?”.
There’s nothing worse than someone asking you that question. It makes you feel paranoid that something isn’t going right and that other people can tell.
Smile for the camera felt accusatory.
Thinking back on the days of my youth, which I’m still living as I’m just 24, I can’t help but smile just a little bit.
For years, I didn’t smile, so I have a lot of them saved up now for a rainy day. As a person, you should aim to give someone a reason to smile, not tell them to smile. I was never depressed, but it made me sad that a lot of people assumed that I was. There was a lot of happiness behind my serious expression and I don’t think a lot of people saw that at the time.
I could have tried to smiled, but it wouldn’t have been a real one, which is even worse.
So if you know someone who doesn’t smile, don’t ask them to.
Ask them about their day, tell them something positive, and try to find out what makes them smile.