By Bethany Browning
“Watch me, Mommy. Look at me. Mommy. You watching? Mommy. Look. Mama. See?”
A buck-toothed girl in a grimy pink tutu was flinging her elbows and knees about in an interpretative dance routine at a local park while her mom, lounging on a beach towel, flicked her thumb across her smart phone.
“Good job, honey,” the mom mumbled.
You’d think I’d be annoyed with the mom for her profound disinterest in her kid’s kinetic expressions. Or that I would pity the kid who was being ignored.
Nah. I was envious that I didn’t have a tutu like that to wear when I was her age. Oh, the attention I could have gotten in my own pink tutu.
“LOOK AT ME” might as well have been tattooed on my forehead. Plays, talent shows, field days, spelling bees, art fairs, poetry readings, choral groups, cheerleading squads—if an audience was part of the deal, mine was the first name scribbled on the sign-up sheet.I joined a Brownie troop because I thought I’d look cute in the acorn beanie. (I did.)
I took clogging lessons—actual Appalachian hill-people clogging—because I witnessed a group of overall-clad dancers chugging around at the county fair and I wanted a piece of that. (My heel click stole the show.)
I auditioned to play a boy in a community theater production because there were no female parts, and I refused to sit out the season. (I got the role—and a standing O.)
My need for attention was bone deep.
With time and maturity some of the more powerful attention-getting drives shifted into neutral (although I did perform a synchronized swimming routine at my ex-husbands 40th birthday party).
But one weapon in my arsenal remained strong: Smiling like an idiot at everyone and everything.
No matter what my mood (often deeply grumpy) or what kind of shitty day I was having (occasionally dramatically bad!) I would grin from ear to ear at every human, dog, cat, bird and even a few inanimate objects.
I thought smiling made me a nice person. Not only was I making everyone’s day better by blessing them with an unobstructed view of my bright and shiny chompers, but I was showing them they matter. My smiling made others feel important.
Anthropologically speaking, humans smile to make ourselves more approachable, less threatening, more lovable. I don’t know why we evolved this way, but I read an article by a smart person who said this was true.
Then it dawned on me: My adult smiling was an offshoot of my childhood attention grabbing. Never was this more obvious to me than when I had to mask up for COVID.
As you yourself have probably realized, smiling under a mask is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
A hundred years ago in 2020, I would say things like “I’m smiling under here,” to let people know that the corners of my mouth were in the upright and locked position.
No one cared.
And I started to feel stupid.
Then I tried making witty, lighthearted observations. Just yesterday I was picking up a prescription and I asked the pharmacist how many Ivermectin jokes she’d had to tolerate in the last week.
“What?” she said, her irritation apparent.
“Nothing,” I said, giving up.
“I can’t hear anything through these masks,” she said. “Sorry.”
I waved a hand to let her know it was okay. I wished I could have smiled, but why bother?
In the movie Wanderlust, an unhappy housewife played by Michaela Watkins says, “Smiling tricks your brain into thinking that you’re happy.”
I think about that line sometimes when I’m walking my dog. In the great before, I would greet other dog owners with a cheek-splitting grin. There might be chit-chat. I’d come home feeling happy. Ish.
But now? I don’t even trouble myself to make eye contact.
I frown under my mask, and I wonder if it works the same way as smiling. Does constantly frowning convince your brain that you’re unhappy?
Or am I unhappy because of viralplaguewildfireshomelessnesslackofhealthcare-demolishedvotingandabortionrightskillerstormsschoolshootings-inflationoilspillsextinctioneventsantivaxxersclinicaldepression?
Who knows anymore?
But it’s not all doom and gloom under here.
I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the frown.
I live in a building with a shared hallway. The people who live within the four walls of my home are the only residents who wear masks in the common areas.
Watching my neighbors’ naked mouths and unobstructed nasal passages blast potentially infected microdroplets all over the place really dills my pickle.
But since I have my mask on, I don’t have to smile.
The old me would smile, cut a wide berth, and pretend to approve, all in the name of keeping up neighborly relations. I wouldn’t want them to think I’m unlikable.
There’s a weird old dude living in a white van on my street. Before COVID I smiled at him. Every day.
Let’s linger on this: I had been smiling, daily, at a scary stranger who lives in a white van.
Because I wanted him to…what? Invite me in for tea?
I don’t smile now, and that feels correct.
It’s a relief.
The masks are teaching me, life-long attention seeker, when it’s appropriate to smile and when it’s not. And that it’s okay to fly under the radar. To not grovel for approval from strangers.
I’m a perma-masker now. I like the freedom. Freedom from your disgusting germs for one. But also, freedom from smiling at you when I don’t want to.
And if you run into me now and I do smile, you’ll know I really mean it this time.
Bethany Browning was once named Most Likely to Lie on Her Resume. Her hobbies include collecting her thoughts and spending her time. She has excellent credit and a need for speed(ers to be pulled over and ticketed. A car is not a toy). Follow her on Twitter @buzzwordsocial.