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Stop Telling Women to Smile
Stories of Street Harassment and How We're Taking Back Our Power
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- Hardcover $28.00 $35.00 CAD
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Every day, all over the world, women are catcalled and denigrated simply for walking down the street. Boys will be boys, women have been told for generations, ignore it, shrug it off, take it as a compliment. But the harassment has real consequences for women: in the fear it instills and the shame they are made to feel.
In Stop Telling Women to Smile, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh uses her arresting street art portraits to explore how women experience hostility in communities that are supposed to be homes. She addresses the pervasiveness of street harassment, its effects, and the kinds of activism that can serve to counter it. The result is a cathartic reckoning with the aggression women endure, and an examination of what equality truly entails.
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I was still a girl when my body began to change. When it started to be ogled, stared at, whispered to, touched, followed. No sooner had I begun to understand my own developing body than it began to no longer feel like my own. It felt like a thing. A thing that men wanted.
That was when I started to feel uncomfortable, and unsafe. It seemed as though my body existed for men’s pleasure, and it became something I was forced to dress myself in for others’ enjoyment.
I started to cover up.
I was very conscious of the clothes I wore, of not wanting to be seen. Not wanting to wear anything that was too tight or that would reveal this thing I had to carry. I wanted to hide my body so I could keep it to myself, learning and exploring and growing into it in my own time and space.
When I think about how early sexual harassment began for me, and how early it begins for so many girls, I am infuriated by the idea that before we can define ourselves within our own bodies, someone else has already determined what they are: sexual objects.
Street harassment is sexual harassment that happens in the public space. It can take the form of anything from a misguided and unwelcome comment from a passerby—“Hello, sweetie”—to cruder catcalling or explicit, often denigrating sexualization. It includes physical encounters that cross the line into assault. It can happen anywhere.
For the last several years, I have made it my mission to understand street harassment. I have asked women around the country for their definitions and the ways they’ve experienced it. I’ve learned from their answers that it can be defined by any behavior—commenting, leering, or touching—that is sexual and unwanted.
Women have described being grabbed by the hands or wrists. Having their paths blocked as they were walking. Having men whisper in their ears, standing too close, leveraging their power. Being touched on public transportation. Having kissing noises made as they pass, being followed, getting yelled at. Many women have told me that men have grabbed their genitals. Many said they had been followed while out for a run and had to stop jogging in public places.
Like so many of us, I started to experience these things when I was a child, probably around eleven or twelve years. Walking down the sidewalk or even from my mother’s car to the entrance of a grocery store left me open to leering looks; some men would even try to pick me up if my mother wasn’t by my side. Still, I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, which isn’t a pedestrian-friendly place, and most people there don’t get around by walking. That limited the opportunities for men to harass women and girls, and me. It was when I moved to Philadelphia at age seventeen that street harassment became an everyday part of my life.
Walking around in that unfamiliar city as a teenager was an entirely different beast than walking down the street in Oklahoma City. Of course, I was already familiar with the idea that my body was a thing that would be sexualized by men. The difference was that in Philadelphia, a city where walking and public transportation are common, strangers were in close proximity to my personal space and my body every day. I was struck by the sheer quantity of harassment I experienced in a single day, walking to and from school. In the fifteen-plus years since then, street harassment has continued to be a part of my daily life.
That’s why, in 2012, I started a street art series called Stop Telling Women to Smile (STWTS, for short).
Stop Telling Women to Smile is a series of posters featuring drawings of women captioned with text that speaks directly to street harassers. I created this street art series to challenge gender-based harassment in the public space. The idea is simple: I make posters I can paste onto public walls in large numbers across New York City and other cities across the country. I’m a portrait artist, so I wanted the work to show the faces of women, and I wanted the women to speak directly to men who harass women on the street. I wanted the work to speak out for women when we couldn’t speak up for ourselves.
Because it’s not easy to talk back. Sometimes I speak up for myself when I am harassed, and other times I don’t. With this art project, I could take the words that swirled in my head that I didn’t say aloud and put them out into the world.
The project began with three posters: one that showed a drawing of myself, the other two featuring friends of mine. The posters showing my friends’ faces each displayed a single sentence:
MY NAME IS NOT BABY, SWEETIE, SWEETHEART, SHORTY, SEXY, HONEY, PRETTY, BOO, MA.
WOMEN ARE NOT SEEKING YOUR VALIDATION.
The poster with my self-portrait showed the text “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” I put that poster in Brooklyn one night, and the very next day on Tumblr I came across a photo that someone had taken of it. By the end of the day, the photo had thousands of likes and reposts. Soon after, I pasted two posters on a corner in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. A reporter from NPR lived on that block. He sent photos of the work to his friends at other media outlets, and pretty quickly, a reporter from the New York Times contacted me to discuss the work. The NPR reporter covered the project by coming out with me one night while I put up the work. As soon as I put up the first piece, a cop car stopped and police officers caught me. It was great footage for the reporter, who recorded the entire interaction. The police officer let me go. In New York, the police are usually pretty stern on vandalism. I’ve known artists who have been arrested for wheat-pasting. It’s always alarming, any time that I’m confronted by the police, whether I am in the wrong or not. As a Black woman, it is always a charged interaction. This night, I told the officer I would take the work down, that it wasn’t permanent. He let me go. From there, the media coverage continued and the project grew a large following online.
Before then, I had not considered the important role the internet would play in this work. The posters are not meant to last forever, but once someone posts a photo of my art, it gets a new life online, and the idea and meaning are transported to people around the world. Amazing.
As the project expanded to include more women, many of whom I hadn’t previously known, my process changed. I interviewed each woman about her experiences of being harassed in public. Each piece depicts a woman I have come to know, and the text that is paired with her portrait is inspired by the woman’s experiences. I turn these pieces into black-and-white posters, print multiple copies of each, and glue them to outdoor walls. Sometimes I make them bigger—sometimes I have the opportunity to paint them as murals. The project is about taking back space in public, reclaiming authority over our bodies and the street.
Over time I met all kinds of women—women from cities and small towns, immigrants and students and professionals, creatives and sisters and mothers. As I recorded their interviews, I found myself wishing I could share their stories, the stories behind the posters and behind the lives that inspired them, with a broader audience. Their stories enable us to delve deeper into the dynamics of street harassment. I have gained so much, both personally and as an artist, from speaking with all these women and girls, and now I’m so happy that, here in this book, other people can access the same insights, information, wisdom, clarity, comfort, and inspiration I’ve had over the years, and commiserate, too.
People have asked if one particular moment or incident sparked this project, and my answer has always been no. There was not one moment, there were hundreds, cumulating over the years; the project grew out of the utter enormity of experienced street harassment. It arose from the exhaustion and frustration of enduring years of sexual harassment and abuse from strange men. No, not just one moment. Rather, the simple fact that it happens all of the time.
I’ve been told the crudest, most disgusting things.
I’ve been called baby, sweetie, sweetheart, sexy, mami, beautiful, lovely, cutie, bitch—all by strange men who do not know me.
Men have grabbed me, followed me.
I’ve been told to smile.
And I’ve been in cursing matches with men after they’ve harassed me.
These moments have been unrelenting and are inescapable, a constant in my life. And even when street harassment does not happen, the possibility of it is always there.
A fundamental element of street harassment is that there’s more to it than the harassment itself. The threat of sexual violence is often implicit in the things men say to women on the street about their bodies. This danger always hangs over our heads. We don’t know if any given interaction will stay within the realm of harassment or tip over into violence. It is something we guard against with awkward smiles at work, keys held between our fingers when we walk down the street, and constant vigilance over our drink cups at parties. The threat of sexual violence is one that begins when we are young and seems never to abate.
That is what prompted this work. I want to chop away at that threat.
The profound impact of street harassment is something that men typically do not understand. Often, their ignorance is willful, because understanding it would interrupt their way of life. But it is important for everyone to acknowledge the complexities of it. It is important to realize that women have been experiencing this behavior and all of its nuances for years and that it shapes our lives and identities.
For example, a woman I know told me about a time when a man, a stranger, said hello to her on the street. When she didn’t respond fast enough—or loudly enough, or nicely enough, and just kept walking—he cursed her out. Now, a well-meaning person might respond to that story with a wave of the hand, saying, “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. He’s just being an asshole.” But the point they’d be missing is that it isn’t just about that one incident. It’s about the millions of instances, every day, everywhere.
It is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting to walk down the street without peace. To wear earbuds, to take a different, inconvenient route, to put on a scarf or sweater when it’s eighty degrees outside—all the types of precautions we take to avoid being harassed—and we are still, constantly, harassed. Hassled. Badgered. Accosted.
It’s rage-inducing, and that rage was the catalyst for Stop Telling Women to Smile. Not because one man did one thing to me in the street. But because it seems all men feel like they have the right to say anything they want to me about my body. And I’m tired.
Street harassment is not an isolated issue; it sits on top of all of the other forms of sexual harassment and abuse. For many women and girls and femmes, it follows on a long history of aggressive sexualization—everything from sexism and discrimination in the workplace, at school, and at home, to sexual or domestic abuse, to sexual intimidation and assault.
Sexual harassment, in particular, happens in so many places, so many times. So, when you leave one space where you’re being treated badly because you’re a woman—maybe your supervisor has asked you to go out for a drink, and it doesn’t seem work-related—and get outside into the street or onto public transportation, where you are likely to be harassed, it can feel like there is no safe space to be truly free from gendered mistreatment.
I have always wanted my art to be a reflection of my experiences as a Black person and a woman. Identity has long been an important part of my work because our sense of identity has very real consequences in our lives. For Black people, queer people, trans people, people of color, and many other groups, claiming our own identity is an act of self-determination in a society that constructs identities for us and attaches them to us like labels, as a way to other us. More than that, it’s an act of survival.
A defining fact of my life is that when I walk out my door in the morning I am read as a woman and therefore am mistreated in very specific ways that are part of a long history of violence against women. My work is about that: how women are treated in these real, everyday moments simply because we are women.
Street harassment is the most direct and visible form of mistreatment in my life. It’s the first thing that greets me each day. It’s in my face, undeniable and inescapable. I also experience other microaggressions, particularly racism, in my daily life. But public sexual harassment is the constant and has been the constant for so many years.
When I moved to Philadelphia to go to art school, three things were happening at the same time: I was becoming an artist, I was coming into my womanhood, and I was experiencing ever more sexism. That was when I really became subject to the emotional, mental, physical, and economic consequences of daily street harassment.
Plenty of sexism happened in the classroom, too, where the male voices of my classmates were heard over mine, and where my male professors came on to me—some aggressively, others insidiously. As I explored and expanded my skill and voice as an artist, my artistic development and the weight of sexism began to converge.
I made the first pieces of the Stop Telling Women to Smile series a few years after graduating from college. They came from very real thoughts and reactions that I’ve had to men in the streets over the years. It was my voice speaking back in a way that I didn’t always do in person, often out of fear of retaliation in the form of verbal abuse or violence. I wanted these posters to become a part of the environment, a voice and defense for the women trying to exist in those places, a voice telling men to stop, to leave us alone.
One of the earliest pieces reads “Women Are Not Seeking Your Validation” under a portrait of a short-haired woman who looks out at viewers with an expression of combined fatigue and defiance. This portrait was a response to men giving women “compliments” in the street—as if we are looking for their approval. As if we get dressed in the morning and walk outside hoping that strange men will validate us by telling us we have nice lips, or great legs, or that they like the way we walk.
We do not.
Whenever men say things like that to me, I wonder, Do you really think I care what you think about me? Do you really think I’m waiting for your approval? These “compliments” you think you’re giving me, as if you are rating me, as if I’m here to please you—I don’t care about any of it. I don’t want it.
In the early years, I had not considered just how much the sentence “Stop telling women to smile” would resonate with others—or how controversial it would be. It raises questions I’m often asked and have been called upon to answer, such as, “How is telling a woman to smile street harassment? How is complimenting a woman sexist?”
It’s sexist because women are told to smile as a way of controlling their bodies, their appearance, and their presentation. A man telling a woman to smile dismisses her autonomy over her own body, emotions, and self-expression. It assumes she has an emotional responsibility to always present as happy, pleasant, and approachable—whether or not that is how she feels or what she wants to express.
I’ve always believed that men who tell me to smile are trying to create a mood in which I seem more approachable to them. The problem is that my own wants and needs are not considered. In these encounters on the street, I do not want to be approachable, because I have no wish to talk to these men. By telling me to smile, men are centering their desire, and forcing me to do the same, even when I don’t comply.
My desire, meanwhile, is decentered, erased even. This type of street harassment turns me into an object that will function either in service of what men want or in opposition to it.
“Smile for me.”
“You’re too pretty not to smile.”
“Why aren’t you smiling?”
“Can I get a smile?”
Everything within these statements and questions is about my physical appeal to this unknown person and what he wants from me. I am not interested in any of it. I am just trying to go about my day.
But that doesn’t matter, because what I want isn’t in the picture at all. Instead, women are expected to assume that every man who speaks to us on the street has good intentions; we are expected to accept their “compliments,” to smile on demand, and to interrupt our day to interact with them in a way that pleases them.
And what happens when we do not smile or respond in a way that feels light and positive? We are often punished with insults, cursing, shouting, or physical violence.
The Stop Telling Women to Smile project is about pinpointing the everyday occurrences of sexism and sexual harassment that women experience and making them visible. It is not enough to say that sexism is wrong and should be dismantled. We have to interrogate the sexism that occurs throughout our lives—even the seemingly small, trivial instances. Because if we do not challenge those moments—being told to smile, being called sweetie, being touched, even gently, without our consent—they pave the way for even worse behaviors to be normalized and accepted.
In 2013, about a year after beginning the Stop Telling Women to Smile art series in New York, people around the country and around the world started asking me to visit their cities, saying that they needed the work in their own neighborhoods. I decided to travel with the project. That’s when the personal became political.
Until that point, I had not understood just how much of a problem street harassment was for women everywhere. I was about to discover that, by using my artwork to speak about my own experiences, I unknowingly was speaking for so many other women and had created a platform for their voices to be heard, too. I launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund my travels to cities across the United States, to places where I could interview all kinds of women and create new work that was specific to their lives and communities.
I wanted to hear from the women who were reaching out to me and to let their stories inform this project so that I could tackle the problem from a wide, varied, and inclusive perspective. What I experience on the street is different from what a sixteen-year-old Latinx girl in Miami experiences, or a forty-year-old trans woman in Omaha, or a sixty-year-old Black woman in South Los Angeles.
To really fight this behavior, not just a single narrative but many must inform us. The experiences of a diversity of women must help us understand that sexism does not work alone and that, when most women experience sexism, they are experiencing it through their layered identities.
When I interview women for this work, I try to understand and then reflect back to the public just how such mistreatment based on the simple fact that they are women and based on their racial identity, gender presentation, size, personal style, ability, age, and more affects their lives.
So many factors contribute to how a person is perceived and treated in the street. For most women, sexualization is only one element in their harassment. Racialized women face racist comments, trans women face transphobia, LGBTQ women face homophobia—and the list goes on to include women with disabilities, women who are poor, women facing homelessness, sex workers. One oppression usually works in tandem with others.
It’s important to stretch the conversation to include the faces and voices of many people so that the narrative moves beyond street harassment as something that happens only to young white women. Like most media we consume, white people are usually the face of it. A part of white supremacy is to make the lives of white people the dominant story, the normal story. It happens in most parts of our society, and you see it within feminism. “White feminism” is feminism from white women that centers the experiences of only white women, excluding the way race is inextricably tied to the experiences of Black women and women of color. It is why feminism was long led by white women, prioritizing their experiences, their sensibilities, their stories. When I entered into the mainstream conversation on street harassment with Stop Telling Women to Smile, most of the stories and media I saw online about street harassment were from white women. On this issue, and most other issues surrounding sexism, it is not that Black women are not telling our stories or doing the work. We are and have been. We, instead, have had to fight for our stories to be actually heard and valued. So, with this work, I am consciously centering the experiences of diverse women.
That said, in reality I’ll never be able to feature the voice of every woman who has experienced harassment. Important perspectives are not included here. But I believe this project does work with intention to hear from and represent numerous and various women.
This book tells the stories of women and nonbinary persons from a range of backgrounds. What is especially fascinating are the ways in which sexism and sexual harassment have permeated each person’s life. Whether in small moments or in larger, more tragic events, each person has had numerous experiences with sexism and harassment, usually beginning in childhood, that have affected them forever.
Through this work, I have learned more than I could have imagined when I first began it: How the women’s various identities influence how they experience the outdoor space. How so many women experience trauma, and how that dovetails with the harassment they receive on the street. I have learned about the power in telling your story and how speaking about who you are and what you have experienced is an empowering and political act. I have also learned a lot about myself. (More on that later.)
For this book, I interviewed nine new women and one nonbinary person, and just as for the STWTS series, I spoke with each person one-on-one. I explain a little more about my process in a few pages, but, simply, I spoke with each person, photographed them, and drew their portrait. Near the end of each interview, I asked each person the same question I’ve been asking women and femmes over the years since I began the project: What do you want to say back to your harassers in the street?
Their answers—many of which are included in this book—were enlightening, entertaining, sharp, brave, proud, and as varied as the people themselves.
This book, just like the street work, wouldn’t have been possible without the participation of the women and people who shared their lives with me. I’m sharing these interviews with you in the hope that you’ll find them as illuminating as I have. I’m sharing these people’s stories with you because, in addition to offering visual portraits, I’m eager to present their voices in their actual words. Think of their chapters as verbal self-portraits, to complement the drawings.
The conversations I am privileged to have had with these people are far-ranging and fascinating. They each speak about various aspects and angles of street harassment, and it has been invaluable in broadening my understanding of the problem. Each person has some things in common with the others and some things that distinguish them. Taken all together, they reveal the infinite ways we are all connected and the equally infinite ways we are each unique.
I want to take a moment to address a few questions and arguments that people sometimes raise in response to the Stop Telling Women to Smile series.
People often ask whether it is possible to legislate a solution to street harassment. The media have been covering the topic more and more, and recently, following a violent incident in Paris where a man forcefully slapped a woman after throwing an ashtray at her outside of a restaurant, France banned street harassment, levying fines for catcalling.
Numerous factors prevent such laws from being a good idea in other countries. Here in the United States, such legislation would likely mean an increase in the criminalization of men in already criminalized areas. For that reason, Black and brown women would be reluctant to call the police on harassing men in their neighborhoods in addition to the fact that Black women and women of color themselves risk being harassed by the police when they encounter them.
Racial bias is another consideration. White women may be more likely to perceive harassment as coming from Black and brown men and may be quicker to call the police on them than on harassing white men. In other words, I believe that an anti–street harassment law would become yet another means of sending Black and brown men into the legal system and promoting the prison-industrial complex.
Laws in some states already ban certain forms of harassment in public spaces. Stalking, groping, and indecent exposure are illegal in most states. In New York City, gender-based harassment in public places like restaurants, schools, and subways is illegal. But there is no federal ordinance specifically against sexual harassment in the streets. Because laws against harassment vary by state, and sometimes by city, it is difficult to understand just where we stand as a country on what behavior toward women is punishable.
It’s also important to acknowledge that women and feminine-presenting people are not the only ones who experience sexual harassment: it occasionally happens to cisgender, heterosexual men as well. But not nearly as often as it happens to women, and not to the same degree, and their experiences are not what my art series and this book are about.
And while we’re at it, not all harassers are men. Yes, women can sexually harass and abuse other women. Most of us have ingested some forms of sexism and misogyny, and that includes from women, whether cis or trans, straight or queer. It is difficult not to in a society permeated by rape culture. (You can see this, for instance, in how some feminists condemn sex workers, attempting to police how another woman uses her own body and sexuality.) In any case, because most harassment and violence against women and LGBTQ people is perpetrated by cisgender, heterosexual men, that is where I focus my work.
One aspect of street harassment is common for all of us who experience it: even though it occurs in public, it still feels like a private moment, an experience that each of us carries alone. By bringing these experiences into the light, I’m trying to change the way we think about this problem—not as a private issue that falls to the woman to solve but as a public one for which we all share responsibility.
People are used to living with these everyday oppressions, as if they are just the way of the world. But, in fact, we can change it. Cultures do shift. Even if we currently live in a toxic, sexist, violent society that dictates what women should and should not be, we can slowly and gradually change into a society that treats women better. I believe this begins with breaking the silence around everyday violence and calling out the behavior we are not willing to take anymore.
A Note on Process
- "Tatyana's art does what all great art does: tells the truth about our times. Her portraits of women are not only beautiful, they give women a space to have their truths heard. She is formidable and strong in her art, and our society is better for it."—Spike Lee
"Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has done what so many artists wish to accomplish. She has combined her tremendous talent for producing beautiful images with a forthright critique of the world she inhabits. Stop Telling Women to Smile is the most consequential street art campaign of the last decade, and we owe that to Tatyana's honesty, intelligence, hustle, and unmatched artistic talents. Her commitment to this project has challenged the way we discuss women and women's bodies in public space, and we are better for it."
—Mychal Denzel Smith, New York Times bestselling author of Invisible Man: Got the Whole World Watching
"Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's work wrestles the knot between cultural codes and the bodies of women with spectacular artistry. Her intersectional feminism lights the fire we need to see a way forward. She is unflinching and glorious."
—Lidia Yuknavitch, bestselling author of The Book of Joan
- "Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's work makes me smile. Provocation brings joy and Fazlalizadeh's images startle and prod with their delicate ferocity, reminding us that women are human. She treats us to what is seldom seen: woman as subject, woman as agent, woman as free human being."—Myriam Gurba, author of Mean
- "Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is the political artist of our time. Her walls burn, laying plain oppressions both buried and overt with beauty, power, and courage."—Molly Crabapple, author of Drawing Blood
- On Sale
- Feb 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press