I have always hated my smile.
Today, looking for a picture of teenaged me to show a friend, I pulled out a collage that my mother had made for me of all my old school pictures. School pictures have a peculiar half-life of their own. You hate them when you get them. Then a few years go by and they begin to look silly, dated. Finally, as an adult, you look at them in awe, trying to recognize your own face in that creature staring awkwardly back at the camera.
I say staring and not grinning advisedly; I’m only smiling in two pictures. I remember fighting, year after year, for the right to not smile. “You won’t look happy,” the photographers would cajole. “I look better this way,” I’d insist. “More like me.”
Smiling transforms my face in a way that frightens and displeases me. My natural mien is solemn; long-jawed with expressive eyebrows. I convey humor by wrinkling my nose, laughing, eye-rolling. Not by smiling.
I remember reading a story when I was younger; more likely it was a novel, but the one thing I recall clearly is that the main character spent hours in front of the mirror practicing her smile. I don’t know if the author was trying to be funny, or tragic, or make a point about vanity or what, but I remember that image, the girl practicing facial expressions, for a very good reason:
It was something I needed to do.
I don’t make a big deal out of being, you know, a little maybe not neurotypical. I answer questions directly, have trouble interpreting (or having any patience for) small talk, and struggle with names and faces. On the other hand, I retain and synthesize information well, communicate precisely, and can reproduce nearly any artistic or writing style well enough to at least satirize it if not duplicate it precisely. I make my brain work for me, is what I’m saying, even if it doesn’t work like yours.
But as a child (especially after I got my glasses at age five or six) I discovered that other people had facial expressions; that they depended on those expressions to provide context for communication; and that certain types of expressions were considered more attractive and pleasant than others. Since people reacted more positively to these “pleasant” expressions, I set out to learn and adopt them in preference to the things my face and body did naturally. Since I had few natural mannerisms anyway, this wasn’t as hard as you might think.
I understood that a loud, booming or shrieking laugh was undesirable. I taught myself to laugh through my teeth, subtly, until I watched Mary Poppins. The scene where she discusses people who “laugh through their teeth, goodness’ sakes/ hissing and fizzing like snakes / (not at all attractive to my way of thinking!)” made a huge impression on me, and I restructured my laugh. It still rarely booms, but it’s more of a chuffing sort of thing now, intermittently spiced with the giggle I tried to cultivate at seventeen.
I learned, by dint of scotch tape, practice, and the bathroom mirror, to raise one eyebrow, then either, then both, in a Spocklike arch. These muscles of derision pleased me, the more so because most children couldn’t manage the trick. But I was learning every expression from scratch; I could do anything.
I started biting my lip at twelve, in a Dragonriders of Pern inspired fit of wanting to be Attractive To Boys. I knew already that my face was not ever going to be conventionally pretty- my green eyes and long brown hair might be the stuff of folk ballads but they were never going to be the stuff of Senior Prom. Not in the shoulderpads-and-bangs years, and not in the flannel years that followed. But those of us who can’t get to ‘”pretty” can often manage “intriguing.” After so many years, the lip-bite feels natural.
But the smile. The smile. I couldn’t do anything about the smile. No matter how I flexed my facial muscles I couldn’t replicate the smiles I saw in magazines, on other people’s faces, on my friends’ faces. The best I could manage was a sort of gap-toothed grimace. I never had the toothgap that most of my friends had, though, the one that could be adorable and awkward at the same time. No, I had six sort of normal even top teeth and the rest of my mouth was a crooked horror so strange that even now dentists call other dentists in to admire my crossbite. The shape of my teeth and jaw probably made a “normal” smile impossible, but all I remember is spending hours trying to find an oral posture that didn’t expose miles of pale pink gums on top, emphasize my left-leaning chin. I’ve gotten so good at the head-tilt to hide the chin that no-one believes how crooked it is until I hold a pencil up vertically, touching my nose. I’m a firm believer in Bones’ adage that symmetrical people appear more pleasing to others, and I’m pretty sure we read the same research that backs it up.
Of course practicing in front of the mirror didn’t work. You can’t change your teeth and bones the way you can change your expressions, posture, and hairstyle. Eventually I realized that I could move those muscles all I wanted, the end result was simply never going to be a smile. I have a pretty fierce grin now, and I’ve learned to embrace that because people do expect you to show teeth to be happy. My dog also grins. My grin and hers look disturbingly similar, like we might be happy or we might intend to eat your brain.
But I don’t smile for the camera, so please stop asking.