As if we don’t have enough policing of women’s bodies and behaviour going on, it’s now extended to the way our faces look when at rest.
There’s a thing. I heard about it on the radio this morning, in an interview with Jessica Bennett. It’s called ‘Resting Bitch Face’ (RBF). Bennett is author of The New York Times piece, “I’m Not Mad. That’s Just My Resting Bitch Face.”
And apparently, it’s been around since at least 2009! Mercifully, I’m to RBF as Sam was to “Camel Toe”— living in a bubble where, until a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t part of my vocabulary or conceptual scheme.
It’s gained recent prominence again because Bennett’s article came out on August 1st. In it, she says:
For those who need a review, RBF is a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless. It’s the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something — or perhaps when they’re not thinking at all.
It’s got its origins in a parody of a PSA that talks about “bitchy resting face.” If you want to catch up, here’s the PSA, posted on Youtube in May 2013. Just over 2 years later, it’s had close to 6,500,000 views:
It’s a thing that celebrities are especially vulnerable to scrutiny over, since they are often caught on film and live in the public eye, where the adoring public is always looking for something to criticize about them:
“Is there a filter on Instagram that fixes Bitchy Resting Face? I’m asking for a friend,” the actress Anna Kendrick tweeted, explaining recently to the late-show host James Corden that, “When somebody takes a photo and I’m in the background of it, I think, like, ‘Oh my God what’s wrong with me?!’ ”
Other celebrities caught in serious repose: January Jones, whose “absolutely miserable” face made headlines this month at a ComicCon event; Tyra Banks, who has famously advised women to “smize” (smile with your eyes); Victoria Beckham; Kristen Stewart; and Anna Paquin, who has defined RBF as “you are kind of caught off guard and you’re not smiling, and it means you look really angry all the time, or like you want to kill people.” (Also, in the less-chronicled male RBF category: Kanye.)
One use for it is to keep people away. As Bennett says, it can serve as a kind of “protective armor.” So that’s on the pro side of the RBF. On the con side, it’s yet another thing that women get criticized for and it can actually work against them. Alarmingly, Bennett says that the NJBiz, a New Jersey business journal, wrote a report on the phenomenon. The journal called around to see what impact this could have in the workplace. They were thinking people would laugh them off the phone. But instead, here’s what they found:
“But, after calling around the state asking more than a dozen C-suite women in multiple industries to weigh in on the subject, we noticed one thing: No one ever scoffed or even asked, ‘Why would this matter?’ ”
It is, indeed, a serious thing. It’s so serious, that cosmetic surgeons are now offering to fix it. This report offers “hope.” Michigan-based cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Youn, says:
“Bitchy resting face is a definite phenomenon that plastic surgeons like myself have described, just never with that term,” he says. “Basically many of us have features that we inherit and/or develop with age that can make us look unpleasant, grumpy, or even, yes, bitchy.”
Youn says many plastic surgeons perform what he calls “expression surgeries,” procedures meant to improve resting facial expressions.
“One procedure I perform in the grin lift, used to turn a permanent frown upside down,” he says. “As we age, some of us – myself included – find that the corners of our mouths droop, giving us a grumpy look. This is usually present with a resting face.”
Aside from a downturned mouth, what makes a face look angry or bitchy?
Youn quickly points to the deep vertical lines between eyebrows (often referred to as 11s) as another culprit that can produce an angry or unhappy vibe. Droopy or overly arched eyebrows can also work to create a wrong impression.
He estimates that he performs about 20 “grin lifts” in a year as well as 100 filler procedures to turn up the corners of the mouth. Botox injections to relax those vertical “11s” are much more prevalent. “I probably do 1,500 of those Botox procedures a year,” he says. “We do a lot. We’re very busy with that.”
Whether you call it “bitchy resting face” or “resting bitch face” makes no difference. What this whole thing says to me is that this is a recycled version of the imperative on women to smile all the time and be cheerful. Here’s something: I don’t have to smile all the time. Neither does Anna Kendrick or Anna Paquin or Kristen Stewart.
Lately, with Renald retiring to live on the boat, I’ve been spending more time walking downtown by myself. I have become aware in recent weeks that I’m on guard — not hyper-vigilant or anything, but always just a little suspicious whenever random men say anything to me, even if it’s as innocuous as asking for the time or commenting on the weather (it happens more than you would think).
In the end I try to be as polite as possible even if it’s mildly alarming that men I don’t know feel it’s okay to engage me in any sort of exchange or conversation of any sort while I’m walking alone, downtown, even after dark. What I would really prefer is to be left alone so I can make it safely and unhindered to my destination.
And this, I think, is where RBF could actually come in handy. Rather than thinking of it as a malady in need of repair, I much prefer the idea that it’s a protective cloak against being approached. And what, I ask, would be wrong with that? That a perfectly good defense mechanism has now been turned against women as a criticism is yet another example of the double bind that we so often find ourselves in. If you look too approachable, you set yourself up for harassment. If you look too unapproachable….you set yourself up for harassment.
Nat’s article two weeks ago about belly patrolling and how the simple act of dressing yourself comfortably on a hot summer day leaves a person vulnerable to all manner of unsolicited “input” (at best) and abuse (at worst) drives home the point that people seem to feel entitled to offer comments willy nilly to women who don’t conform to the expectations of appearance that we have of them.
To me, RBF is one of those things we can and should reclaim. I once heard of a lab on campus where the faculty member in charge was a woman. She posted a sign in the lab that said something along the lines of, “That’s ‘Dr. Bitch’ to you.”
Rather than seeking surgery or botox or some other sort of “corrective” for a resting face that isn’t welcoming or cheerful enough, I think a better stance would be: “Don’t like my RBF? Well f**k you!”