When You Literally Cannot Smile

What Melanie didn’t know was that, due to a lifelong condition of facial paralysis, I physically couldn’t smile.

What Melanie didn’t know was that, due to a lifelong condition of facial paralysis, I physically couldn’t smile.

You should smile more, the note from my ninth grade classmate read, then went on — when you don’t smile, people find you intimidating. Before signing her name at the round-scripted note’s end, Melanie, who sat with her friends near the front of my Earth Science classroom, had drawn a ballpoint smiley face. I kept her note for years in my brightly colored, hard plastic makeup case, locked in with several photographs, friendship bracelets, my miniature address book, and a few other treasures.

My family and I had moved to upstate New York from England that summer, and I sometimes sat on the bottom of the futon bunk bed my sister and I shared to flip through the address book, where I’d listed my English girlfriends in case I ever thought to write them. But I did not respond to Melanie’s note, perhaps intimidated myself by her candor and her ready overture of friendship.

What Melanie didn’t know was that, due to a lifelong condition of facial paralysis, I physically couldn’t smile.

This fact is considerably less remarkable than the shame that prevented me from opening up to her. I wish I could smile at you, I might have written back. I wish my tendency to hide melted in the face of honesty. It was easier, at the age of thirteen, with a disability I hadn’t yet accepted, to read and re-read that note in my cottage bedroom’s dim privacy, fantasizing about what I might say to the girl who wanted to be my friend. 

Every disabled person grapples with shame. Because having a disability inevitably, to a degree, sets you apart, you become acutely conscious of even the most minor discrimination. A supermarket cashier asks you for payment in a certain tone of voice, with a certain expression, and you know she is nonverbally commenting on your difference. 

I like the idea that a smile can stand in for polite or genuine words that are omitted, due to language barriers, from dialogue.

The politics of shame dictate that the smaller the gesture of exclusion, the less right you have to confront it. There begins an internal debate on whether it is easier to confront the gesture or to let it slide. To confront the shaming gesture is to expose ingrained societal discrimination against those most vulnerable to subtle — or not so subtle — derogatory trends. However, the note from Melanie, urging me to do the impossible, paradoxically both elicited shame and encouraged me toward shedding the shame of an adolescent female face that lacked those ever-desired smiles.

I remember the moment when Melanie slipped me the note, before the bell rang for the day’s first period. Having grappled several heavy textbooks out of my bright red clanging locker, I was walking down the corridor noting its 1970s linoleum and wall tiles, searching for the door to my German classroom. A girl with long, scantly brushed brown hair, walking in line with two girlfriends, said, “Hi, Effy, this is for you.” She smiled wide, handing me the folded-up square of yellow notepaper. She had written Ephi on its exterior. I found the misspelling enchanting, but dropped the note into my pinafore’s pocket without comment, too surprised by the gesture even to say hello or thank you. As she continued walking, I admired the confident sway of her gait. In tune with adolescent upstate New York fashion of 1995, the hems of her faded wide-legged jeans dragged on the floor with each step. 

Later that semester, on Halloween, Melanie walked into our Earth Science classroom costumed as a hippie, wearing a flower painted on one cheek, a few fine braids in her hair, a peasant blouse, bell bottoms, feet bare. By now, she had bleached her hair strawberry blonde. The vulnerability of her bare feet in that institutional environment moved me. I thought, What if she steps on something? What if she gets in trouble? I was enchanted by her costume, just as I had been enchanted the first time she smiled at me. But my enchantment involved a sustained, if benign, distance, as though we observed one another as curiosities from a friendly arm’s length, our identities as teenage girls startlingly new to both of us.


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A May 2017 article in The Atlantic suggests that Americans smile more than any nationality in the world because there is such a high immigrant population, and we all rely on nonverbal communication far more than, say, Mexico or China. Smiling, in this theory’s line of thought, becomes universal social currency for every interaction, from the purchase of groceries to meeting the person who will become your best friend. 

I like the idea that a smile can stand in for polite or genuine words that are omitted, due to language barriers, from dialogue. But I also think that smiling, under these circumstances, shows a lack of power ordinarily headlined by the spoken word. The smile both reaches for and offers unconditional acceptance, complimenting everything that’s left unsaid. That is why Melanie felt intimidated when I didn’t smile back at her. And her intimidation probably made me feel unable to speak to her. In my numb shock after leaving England behind, I was also excruciatingly shy, so I barely uttered a word during those first weeks and months in a new school.

I wandered from class to class in a bit of a daze, like a deer leaving the forest to cross a road, dodging headlights.

As an immigrant to America in 1995, the same year O.J. Simpson — NFL running back and celebrity of dubious legal history — was found not guilty of double murder, the cultural barriers to my integration stick in my memory. That October, one of my high school peers burst into our Global Studies classroom shouting exuberantly, “The Juice is loose! The Juice is loose!” Although I had heard the basics of Simpson’s story, I was still getting used to my American relatives saying “O.J.” as a playful abbreviation for “orange juice,” and the quintessential American-ness of Simpson’s nickname didn’t make sense to me yet. The crisp autumn day of Simpson’s acquittal was so surreal to me. The Global Studies classroom positively shook with both horror and jubilation, the same room where girls applied red lipstick and chatted about losing their virginities. 

Despite my silence and inability to reciprocate invitational smiles, these girls accepted me gently, sweetly, without fanfare, into their midst.

For the first few weeks of the semester, I had been sitting alone every day at lunch in the cavernous cafeteria, setting my backpack down on a bare table to claim it before I went to stand on line for lunch. One day, I returned to my table carrying a tray of chicken nuggets and tater tots to find my backpack surrounded by backpacks belonging to Melanie and her friends. My heart fluttered with a rush of acceptance. One by one, the girls arrived with their red plastic trays, smiling openly, greeting me as though we had known one another for years.  


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