“A smile is the prettiest thing you can wear”: A Brief Meditation on Unconscious Sexism

See this photo? Notice anything?

Hygge Sweater
Hygge Sweater by Verena Cohrs

How about this one?

Kiuru Sweater by Sari Nordlund
Kiuru Sweater by Sari Nordlund

And, finally, how about this one?

Hay Sweater by Clare Mountain
Hay Sweater by Clare Mountain

These are three new beautiful sweater patterns from the most recent issue of Laine Magazine which describes itself as “a high-quality Nordic knit & lifestyle magazine for knit folks.” They emphasize natural fibers, neutral colors, and simple but compelling designs specifically suited for Nordic tastes and northern climes. As someone who used to write patterns for a Swedish knitwear designer and whose yarn is stored almost entirely in IKEA Expedit bookcases (now replaced by the Kallax), I appreciate the simplicity and clean lines of Scandinavian tastes and I’m glad my attention has been drawn to this magazine.

But did you notice it? The “it” that many knitters seem to have not just noticed but commented upon (if my Twitter feed is anything to go by) is the fact that the model isn’t smiling. In fact, in the first photo, she looks downright grumpy, and in the second two she looks a little anxious and unhappy. And apparently, Laine Magazine has taken a lot of flak for showing models who aren’t smiling or razor-thin, who look a little kerfustillated (my own made-up word), and are even slouching a little. Coming to their defense are Kate Heppell, Ysolda Teague, and Kate of A Playful Day, amongst others. Brooklyn Tweed, makers of Shelter (the yarn the sweater model is knit with), also received some negative comments on their Instagram account (although their Twitter feed seems free of nastiness–maybe they scrubbed it?) but have–rightfully so–stood by Laine’s editorial choices.

When I saw the Hygge Sweater photo cross my Twitter feed, my initial and almost instantaneous reaction was something like “Boy, she looks like she’s in a bad mood!” Then I noticed the moody, cloudy atmosphere, and only then did I notice the sweater. While it’s probably true that we are trained almost from birth to focus on faces, it’s equally true that we judge those faces based on our cultural expectations and that, in particular, we judge facial expressions based on our gender biases. For instance, we seem to expect women–and by extension, female knitting models–to be cheerful, upbeat, and, most of all, smiling. After all, there’s no male equivalent for “resting bitch face” and there’s a reason “Don’t Tell Me to Smile” T-shirts are so popular.

Change begins with self-awareness. I was honest enough to admit my unconscious sexism (my momentary lapse in feminism) to Kate Heppell in a tweet, and she was generous enough to give me a “like.” Sisterhood is powerful.

Heppell justifiably pointed out that male models are not only allowed to be grumpy, it seems to be their default mode of expression. Here are two representative samples of the many she posted to her Twitter feed, McQueen and Thorpe by Rowan:

Take a moment to look through your patterns or your queue on Ravelry and you’ll probably notice the same phenomenon. Women are expected to look happy, or at the very least blissfully contemplative or waiting hopefully (I saw a lot of gazing off into the distance when I did my own brief survey). Male knitting models, on the other hand, may not have all looked grumpy, but many did, and the vast majority certainly seemed… um…tense. And while knitting models in general are more diverse in terms of body shape than runway models, racism and ableism still seem to be big factors in choosing models. Sadly, I’d bet that what diversity there is has more to do with budget (indie designers certainly can’t afford professional models) than a sincere effort to expand our cultural definitions of beauty.

A brief aside: Heppell also reports that while the Hygge sweater photo got many unsavory, sexist, and even transphobic comments, the Kiuru sweater photo did not. Same model, similar expression–what gives? Any theories why that might be?

For a detailed analysis of the male gaze and knitting photography, you should read this smart and sophisticated series by Kristen Hanley Cardozo, a.k.a. KnittingKninja, of the Dainty Beast blog (and she’s a Victorianist like me!).

And in case you’re interested, the title for this post comes from one of the most popular results when I searched Google for quotes containing the word “smile.” Fitting, eh?


4 thoughts on ““A smile is the prettiest thing you can wear”: A Brief Meditation on Unconscious Sexism

  1. Great post!
    Given that last extra bit of information, I have a hunch, that the negative Feedback may be related to that little belly roll that we can clearly see in the Hygge photo that’s not visible in the Kiuru. It’s the viewer’s discomfort with a certain non-conformist Body shape.


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