As I wolfed down my sandwich and orange quarters, the irony of this interaction was not lost on me. From the time they can barely walk, girls are bombarded with this request — or, in most cases, demand — from parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, pastors, cops, bosses, strangers in the street, and, in the case of retired gymnast Gabby Douglas, male television commentators, as Danielle Bowler reflects in her essay “‘Practicing’ Refusal”.
It is a violent gauntlet to which, I have no doubt, my foolish younger self contributed. I may not know much more than I did then, but this particular lesson is deeply entrenched and I dare not ask my 7-year-old daughter, let alone a grown woman, to smile.
If we are to take away anything from this issue, it is that we can never reinforce enough the idea that while femininity can be soft, demure, and smiling — if it chooses to — it is far more dynamic than these archaic, restrictive prescripts. I trust that it will further drive home that femininity has nothing to do with age, race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation. It is as fierce as rural mothers with skin burned by years of toiling at open fires, under a vicious sun, and as enterprising as our aunties running informal businesses that put their and their siblings’ children through school. As resilient as the queens who take head-on daily cocktails of misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia.
It lives confidently in accomplished, childfree women who challenge the reductive ideas that essentialise womanhood around bearing children. And it sings in the young urban women who debunk the tired stereotypes of a male-engineered “slay culture”’ that presupposes their inability to get the bag on their own. It is the kind of femininity to be celebrated, from August to eternity.