I have a very…stoic face. When I’m going about my business, my face in its natural state can be “pretty off-putting” (or so I’ve been told). I’ve even been reprimanded professionally for appearing to be disinterested in meetings and not being welcoming to esteemed guests (read: I didn’t have a smile plastered on my face the whole time). Men constantly make comments at the gas station, the gym, the grocery store, or any place where I’m just minding my own business for me to smile.
“Damn girl, who ruined your day?”
“You would be so much prettier if you smiled more.”
“I wanted to come talk to you but you look like you’ll beat my ass.”
“Smile! It ain’t that bad!”
These are just a few of the comments I’ve received since I was a pre-teen from men (and sometimes women) demanding I put them at ease or please them with a smile. In the past, I would have flashed a fake grin to get them to leave me alone (in some instances, because I felt unsafe as men are literally killing women for rejecting them) or politely giggled so I could carry on with my day. But as of late, I’m standing firm in whatever expression I’m carrying at the moment. Why? Because I don’t owe anyone being pretty – I don’t exist to appease the male gaze. And frankly, the world is a dumpster fire right now, so excuse me if I’m not skipping around with glee (that was a little dramatic, but you get the point).
The phrase “Resting Bitch Face” is sexist. The term “bitch” has historically been reserved for women, so it implies a reference to a person that either identifies as or is identified as a woman. This isn’t to say that men don’t experience pushback for having RBF, rather highlighting that women tend to be on the receiving end of criticism for not having a pleasant face. And while there have been scientific studies to understand why some folks have RBF, the term itself came from a parody sketch released in 2013 by a group called Broken People (note: I was going to link the original video here, but their library is pretty terrible and can be triggering. If you want to peruse the Internet for that content, go ahead). Just like everything else ridiculous and insidious on the Internet, the term went viral and made its way into the modern lexicon.
If the RBF phrase was made-up with the intention of comedy and happens to become part of our language, why is it a big deal? Well, in short, words matter. We use language to communicate, but what are we communicating when we say certain things? Gone are the days when (most) folks would openly use explicitly racist, sexist, or even homophobic language because, as a society, we have developed new rules for how we talk to and/or about each other. That doesn’t mean that all of the racist, sexist, homophobic folks just disappeared into the ether (wishful thinking…). Rather, they found new ways to say the same things. Black men became “thugs”, LGBTQ folks became “inverts” or “queers”, and women with the audacity to exist without the distinct purpose of appeasing men became “bitches”. So when you assert that a woman has RBF, you’re essentially commenting on her unwillingness to be pleasing to the eye or to carry a demeanor that would be inviting or satisfying to men. It’s a subtle attack on a woman’s agency over her own body (it’s giving SCOTUS 2022).
The backlash against a woman’s “RBF” has varying effects beyond whether or not somebody’s uncle feels welcome to comment on a woman’s appearance at the gas station. In the workplace, women face more scrutiny for their facial expressions than their male counterparts. Cognitive psychologist Nancy Henley refers to a woman’s smile as a “badge of appeasement” that women have been socially conditioned to (and therefore expected to) wear due to their historically lower social class. When women don’t ascribe to this ideology at work, they can be perceived as unapproachable, insubordinate, perpetually annoyed, and/or unpleasant overall. Instead of being judged on the quality of their work or their professional accomplishments, more value is placed on their appearance and likeability (I didn’t see a “Smile Stipend” in my contract…). In the same context, when men exhibit serious or aloof facial expressions, they’re perceived as authoritative and given room to exist without ascribing a pejorative term (Resting Dude Face isn’t a thing). And when it comes to women of color, the perception of RBF can literally be a matter of life or death.
When you think about it, what are you actually saying when you remark that someone has RBF?
She looks unapproachable. She looks angry. She looks mean. She’s intimidating. She doesn’t look inviting. She makes me uncomfortable.
I could go on, but I’ll digress. Ultimately, what does this have to do with you? How does the way a woman (or anyone, for that matter) looks affect you? The short answer is: it doesn’t. But good ‘ol patriarchy has convinced us that men have a right to women’s bodies; that a woman’s body isn’t inherently her own and exists for the pleasure and appeasement of men. It creates and maintains a set of arbitrary standards that women must adhere to in order to be perceived as worthy of male adoration. Anything outside of these norms is considered to be in contradiction to what it “means to be a woman”. When you really stop to think about it, how wild is it that we’ve allowed men to define WOMANhood? And society as a whole silently agrees to uphold these expectations and even police each other (and ourselves) to further support a patriarchal system. Some women are even going as far as having plastic surgery to “fix” their faces, opting for botox injections and costly procedures to further conform to a physical ideal that only really exists in the collective imagination.
As with any system of oppression (like capitalism, white supremacy culture, etc.), patriarchy’s sexist double standards exist because we perpetuate them. We internalize the existing “rules” or norms of the culture(s) we are born into, without contemplating why we agree to go along with them in the first place. And those that rebuke these notions of “normalcy” are often bullied and outcasted for their unwillingness to fit in and adhere to someone else’s idea of how they should express whatever pre-defined version of an identity (psychologists call this groupthink – we all do it). So the idea that women should be naturally and perpetually inviting and appealing feeds into all kinds of problematic notions that a woman should be anything other than what she wants (which could be *gasp* to be left alone).
Here are some ways you can mitigate your own judgment when you’re having RBF thoughts:
If you’re still wondering what you should do if you’ve been accused of having RBF, the Internet is full of articles about how to “fix” your RBF or why you “should” address it. All that does is serve patriarchy and create one more thing women must do to be worthy of existing. To be clear, friend, you are worthy of all the things, whether or not you receive them with a smile.