Several years ago, I hurt my leg and couldn’t really walk. My husband and I were scheduled to go on a cruise and weren’t sure if we should cancel. (Jeff asked my father and my dad asked, “Who was that Jewish guy that got thrown off the cruise ship? He was in a wheelchair. Jeff told him it was Leon Klinghoffer. My dad said, “Well, if Klinghoffer can do it, she can do it.” We went on the cruise.)
In the airport, on the ship, and in all the ports of call, I sat in a wheelchair while my husband or a genial or very ungenial, stone-faced transportation company employee wheeled me from point A to point B. While it sounds quite nice to be wheeled around, and in truth it is quite nice (walking is for suckers!), being in a wheelchair left me with a dilemma that gives me anxiety to this day. What face do I have on? I was wracked with stress about the whole thing, so it made any luxury of not having to get about under my own steam much less pleasant than it should have been.
Like most people, my face at rest is not what you’d call cheery. It’s not that I’m gloomy or angry, it’s just that when relaxed my countenance is neutral, which in men just reads as expressionless, while in women it conveys “crankily plotting revenge”. Resting bitch face is real, and women know it. While walking, sitting, or just standing still, thinking of nothing in particular, we’re often told to smile. Apparently, we owe the world an expression that says we’re thinking of how ecstatic we are to always be so utterly guileless and non-threatening. I’m usually thinking about coffee, though sometimes I’m thinking about doughnuts. Still, it’s an affront to men because I cannot count how many times I’ve been told to smile. On the few occasions where I answered back with something like, “My dad just died” I’m always met with a “Fucking bitch” or some phrase of thematic similarity. Now that I’m over 40 aptly named pedestrians only occasionally care if I look scenic or not. Now when I’m told to smile I just smile on the inside, amused by the gentleman’s pathetic dickery.
Back to the wheelchair. If I sit there being wheeled around with my natural expression, mirroring the same lack of energy as my limbs, I’m afraid I’ll look mean and entitled. I worry that my lackadaisical facade says, “I deserve to be wheeled around, I take it for granted, and I’d happily horsewhip the person pushing me if not for those damn Democrats.” I don’t feel an imperative to smile when male passersby tell me to, but I do in a wheelchair. But then there’s the problem of degree. If I wear a huge smile while being wheeled about, I worry I’ll look somewhat dimwitted, like someone has to cut up my dinner for me.
I have this same problem at classical music concerts and church recitals. I studiously avoid these for myriad reasons, but I can honestly say the “face problem” is up there at #2. I know my resting face will not suggest the suitable amount of respect, and I’m concerned it might convey boredom at best, or disdain at worst. I try to freeze my face with an expression of mysterious reflection, like Greta Garbo’s iconic scene at the end of Queen Christina. Or at least with paste on a look of appropriate appreciation, with just a soupçon of awe.
In the wheelchair situation, I try and go for a slight smile, the “smize“. I’m kind of going for a beatific look, with wide shining eyes. My hope is that I look just rapturous enough to look duly appreciative, not at all cranky. I try to look appropriately beholden to my husband or surly caretaker, and properly in awe of the wondrous world I’m being so benevolently thrust through.
I must say, having to think about the right face, having to labor at keeping up the least offensive façade — it’s really pretty exhausting. Next time I’m asked to use a wheelchair, for my health’s sake I think I better just walk.