The Meaning of Smiling

school photo

I’ve always hated having my photo taken. When I was in school and it was that time of year, where throughout the day you’re called one by one from class to have your photo taken. If you have a sibling in the school, they pair you up, probably for cost reasons. My sister, Jen, had to endure our close-ups together. Jen has always been comfortable and held an outside confidence that I never had as a child. She sat on her stool, tilted her legs, as instructed, cracked a glorious smile. And then there was me, her deshelled, angry, frowning brother in the corner.

They told me to take my hat off, I declined. I was born with a cow’s lick, my hair naturally quiffed up in the middle. At high school everyone saw this as a dream – my hair was always styled – but in primary school it was a point of playground snarls. “Did your mum lick you when you were born?” “Your mum and dad gave you to a farmer so the cows could lick you.” You get the picture. So I wore a hat. I insisted on it. I wasn’t always allowed to wear it in class but in the times when I was at none of the teacher’s mercies, when I was my own, I wore the hat. And the photo was not something I had to do, it was my own time, so I insisted on wearing it and they let me.

“Now smile for us,” the camera man said. “A bit bigger of a smile.” My smile is fake, my smile is merciless, my smile is not genuine. I had to force the smile to counterpart the photo. My sister had to sit next to her brother wearing the cap, a tattered green Hogwarts blazed one and I had to give her something so I gave her the smile, a fake, glorious smile.


I was born frowning. Frowning is natural to me. Even if my brow isn’t – as the writers say – ‘furrowed’ or the line doesn’t blend between my eyes my natural resting face is one of distaste, dissatisfaction, anger perhaps, my face gives everything away. At a work meeting, when wine was being passed around, the topic of smiling came up. “Tom,” my manager said, “you need to smile more.” I’d heard this before, so many times before. Every one of my prior managers have, on more than one occasion, told me to smile. “Geez Tom, crack a smile.” “Smile Tom, it won’t hurt.” But, with the manager and with wine, when told to smile in front of my colleagues I made an ugly, wide, beaming smile as a response. “Like that?” I said.


Smile. Smile because it is appropriate, smile because it sets people at ease. Your frown is stand-off-ish, people don’t feel comfortable, people like smiles. Smiles are a stretched extension of the flesh composed, mostly, under our demand, created for someone else, never for ourselves. Those are the smiles I hate and the smiles my face rejects.
“You have a very nice smile.” My ex-boyfriend says to me. I have a nice smile because it is unlike the smiles I do in front of the camera, in front of the customers, in front of the outside world. I have that nice smile because it is just the two of us, in bed and we are talking, talking after sex, laying still naked under his duvet. Pillow talk but more than that. Not the bored dreams of careless lovers but the analysis of one another, the discoveries in the face, in the eyes and lines and cheeks and bones. The very nice smile that lurks beyond the frown conjured only because it is true and rare and came from something good, a mattered moment, one of the significant somethings.

He pulls his hand from under his hair and touches my smile. The small indents leading to my lips, my lips themselves anchored upwards. Don’t tell me to smile and he never did. When we were alone, when I went to meet his friends, his mother, his sister, when we went to restaurants and bars for his birthday, my birthday, our anniversary, all the particular times, he didn’t tell me to smile. He sat across from the frowning boyfriend as he smiled, talked to the waiters, best friends already. My frown, my short quip, my lack of interest in talking to a stranger. He and I are opposite and I’m not so sure if it’s a good idea to have two frowning people or two smiling or even have one of each. All I know is his smile was enough to weaken my frown.


“Smile, Tom! Go on! Go on! You can do it!”

You speak to a dog this way, a child maybe. You are making high-pitched noises, aiding me on. You are awful. I do not smile, on any of the occasions, especially this one. On this one, I look you in the eye and say no. I will not smile. I am not doing this on purpose, this is what makes me feel comfortable. You go and do fifty press-ups and then I’ll smile. We’ll both be two exhausted people afterwards, neither happy nor fleeting. We shall not be one another’s dogs.

You will not do my request, I will not do yours. It is a tired request now and you think you are the first to say it, the first to ask this of me. Smile because you think everyone should because everyone is capable of smiling. But the meaning of a smile, to evoke the reasoning for a smile is something you cannot make me do. I can spread my face, splash a smile as fragile as melting ice, I can pretend I care, pretend I’m ‘Disney-like’, boisterous, jolly you say, I can do all of that, I can play that tune but I don’t want to, that is an act. You cannot force me to smile in a way that means anything, you are the kind of person who will never make me smile. Laugh, maybe. Pathetically, hopelessly laugh at what this situation is and who you are but smile, never. You do not have that power.


In my childhood bedroom watching Hocus Pocus sitting beside my eight-year-old niece, my sister’s daughter, sharing a bowl of crisps.
“Uncle Tom?”
“Yes, Amelia?”
“What do you think I’ll be when I grow up?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Whatever you want to be. You love animals, you could be a vet but you might like something else and do that. What do you want to be?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know yet.”
Yet. I smile. Not yet but she will.

I see my sister in Amelia, utterly, completely. When I first saw her, resting between my sister’s legs, asleep, I said, “she’s going to be exactly like Jen.” My mother protested: “She’s the spitting image of her father.” Years later, when Amelia’s quip, sass and intrigue set in, when her hair grew long and brown, when her ability to deal with tough situations efficiently heightened, my mother said, “She’s so much like Jen.”

She is, of course, her own person. She loves painting and Pokémon and Roald Dahl and her dragon, Lucy. She gets upset with she hears my mother is selling the coffee table because she enjoys having her own drawer. She adopts traits from me – eating strawberries or pretzels out of bowls, drinking Pepsi out of mugs. She works at my desk when I’m out or I’ll sit in the chair opposite and read as she copies extracts from James and the Giant Peach or staples papers together to write and draw.

But she has my sister’s qualities – stubbornness, strength, smile. Amelia enjoys having her photo taken, she beams. I once took a photograph of her at Christmas, when she was seven and wore a rugged, grey onesie similar to Max from Where The Wild Things Are. She was on my right at the dining table, after we’d devoured all of the roast potatoes and were playing cards, a tradition I got from my grandfather. I didn’t tell Amelia to smile and she did not have her usual wide, stretched face when she did look at the camera. The smile she held was smaller, less enforced, slight.
I couldn’t call it happiness, I couldn’t call it false, I could call it soft. Her smile carried on as she dealt the cards carried on when she wrote down the score, dragging the nib deep into the paper, carried on when she won three times and came second overall, something she was satisfied with. She smiled when I kissed her on the forehead and she hugged me goodbye. She smiled that smile when she hoped in the car to go home and play with the toys Father Christmas had brought her that morning.

And those are the smiles that matter.


Why does the boy persist on not smiling?
It’s not a radical movement, not smiling, but to many people I have encountered it is an offense of the human race, our social dictatorship. To walk into a room without a beam – is everything OK? Or to stand solemnly without the plastered spread lips – what’s wrong with you? Is there a reason to frown like there is a reason to smile? Or is the frown, in all its offense, just easier than the alternative?

The boy with the frown needs to smile.
I am that boy. I am the boy who won’t smile.
My smiles are not reserved but unpredictable.
My smiles are not to be freely cascaded to the masses.
My smiles are as honest and naked as the heart in my chest.
Do not tell me when to smile.

Thomas Stewart

About Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart's fiction, essays and poems have been featured in The Cadaverine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Stockholm Review, Agenda Broadsheet, Flight Journal, The Fat Damsel, Lies, Dreaming, Anomaly, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming by Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from Warwick and a BA in English from South Wales. He enjoys folk music and is afraid of the dark. He can be found on Twitter at ThomasStewart08.

Thomas Stewart's fiction, essays and poems have been featured in The Cadaverine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Stockholm Review, Agenda Broadsheet, Flight Journal, The Fat Damsel, Lies, Dreaming, Anomaly, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming by Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from Warwick and a BA in English from South Wales. He enjoys folk music and is afraid of the dark. He can be found on Twitter at ThomasStewart08.


  1. Sarah says:

    I believe that a smile prolongs life, so I constantly try to smile. And your photos are actually very cute. If you do not like to smile, you just need to find a reason. I like to read funny articles or good books, after reading it is so easy for me in my soul and I smile. And before choosing a new book, I always read a brief description of it, for example, the next I plan to read this one –

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