Service with a (Surgically-Induced) Smile: Gender Norms at Work
I am so delighted to be guest blogging for Concurring Opinions this month and to be part of this exciting community. This month, I will be blogging on various intersections of law, social norms, gender, sexuality, family, and work. I have been researching some of these issues for my book project on Gender and Social Norms in Same-Sex and Different-Sex Marriage (contracted with NYU Press). Although today’s topic is not part of this book research, it takes up many of the concerns that animate my work.
Recently, a plastic surgery procedure that has gained popularity among South Koreans has gained some major media attention in the U.S. The procedure, technically called Valentine anguloplasty and sometimes colloquially called a “smile lipt,” is supposed to lift the outer corners of the lips into a smile, even when the putative smiler is not actually smiling. According to a South Korean plastic surgery center promoting its smile procedure, people of Korean descent like myself have shorter mouths and lower mouth corners than “Westerners,” which means that I and others similarly situated supposedly have a greater tendency to look like we’re frowning. “Perma-smile” to the rescue.
Considering the United States’ status as a world leader in the consumption of plastic surgery, one would think that Valentine anguloplasty would hold some appeal, even to the blessedly long-mouthed. But based on the American media reaction, what’s been dubbed “joker lips surgery” is not likely to catch on any time soon.
Smile surgery has actually been around for decades and isn’t just a recent invention of South Korean plastic surgeons. The response to this latest supposed craze, though, is what interests me more than the procedure itself. No, not many of us want to look like this. But while the origins of this photo are murky, the hypocrisy of the reaction to South Korean women wanting to look smiley is clear.
What strikes me is how narrow the chasm is between the perma-smile of Valentine anguloplasty and the social norms that compel those of us not in South Korea, particularly women, to smile – a lot. Psychologists Marianne LaFrance, Elizabeth Paluck, and Marvin Hecht found that women smile more than men, particularly when women and men think that they are being observed. This effect corresponds with numerous studies with which LaFrance, Paluck, and Hecht engage concerning social expectations for women to smile and penalties imposed on men for smiling too much. Others have written cleverly about the common form of street harassment consisting of ordering women to smile.
Women pay the price of not smiling (or of the much-memed “bitchy resting face”) on the street and in the workplace every day. People like nice women. And the smile is a proxy, although often a sloppy one, for that niceness.
For a woman to smile all the time, especially in the workplace, is — to borrow from Devon Carbado, Mitu Gulati, and Gowri Ramachandran — to perform “gender comfort,” easing the way for women’s presence. What’s already a treacherous climb for women up to leadership positions in firms and corporations is made even more difficult by the added load of having to be smiley and perky all the while. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has identified the strains posed by such “emotional labor,” particularly for flight attendants expected to smile continuously to project concern, friendliness, and other emotions not necessarily felt all the time but considered necessary for the job.
We see the legal imperative and effect of the smiliness social norm historically and contemporaneously. I recently watched the excellent PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America (2013), which reminded me of the 1950s expectation for those women living the post-war American Dream to be cheerful, smiley, and content. Sixty years later, the norm persists. Social expectations for women’s comportment often influence their willingness to negotiate, to ask for more, to complain.
In the context of the workplace, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, setting the statute of limitations for a pay discrimination case from each new paycheck affected by the discriminatory action, is an important step in remedying discrimination of which a plaintiff may be unaware. But it also importantly accounts for the social dimension of that unawareness. When one is socialized to be nice, it is difficult to suspect wrongdoing, even if it occurs over years.
Despite advances like this, social science accounts of workplace dynamics, particularly in the context of negotiation continue to give pause. While women suffer opportunity- and pay-wise from failures to negotiate, they also suffer when they do negotiate. Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, and Lei Lai demonstrate in their research that women are judged more harshly than men for initiating negotiations for higher compensation, with perceptions of “niceness” and “demandingness” explaining resistance to female negotiators. In recognition of the threat posed by women seeking higher pay, one approach is Sheryl Sandberg’s in Lean In, advising women negotiating pay to smile frequently.
This is all terribly depressing when I think of legal and social change. We teach young women to be assertive, but they will likely be judged for being “agentic women.” When we think about women in the workplace, perhaps then it makes sense that some would try to create through facial alteration what many “Westerners” are able to achieve more easily without going under the knife and paying $2000 – a permanent smile and all that comes with it.