Why I don’t believe in “Resting Bitch Face”

You cannot escape “Resting Bitch Face.” Since 2013, the term (or its equivalent, “Bitchy Resting Face,”) has been all over the internet, thrown around to describe the default facial expression of everyone from Kristen Stewart to Queen Elizabeth. (Anna Kendrick even wondered if there might be an Instagram filter to fix it.) It is, in case you missed it, the condition of having a neutral facial expression that people perceive as sour, unpleasant, and generally bitchy.

And it’s a big thing! There was even a scientific study on the roots of Resting Bitch Face. Just this week, researchers Jason Rogers and Abbe Macbeth at Noldus Information Technology used face-reading software to determine that faces displaying Resting Bitch Face (or RBF) are more likely to appear to an audience as if they’re displaying contempt.

But I have my own, less scientific hypothesis on the matter: Resting Bitch Face isn’t real. It’s not that you can’t have a facial expression that not everyone judges as warm and friendly, or even one that’s regularly off-putting. But Resting Bitch Face, with some exceptions, is a criticism mostly leveled at women. (It’s not, after all, called “Resting Boss Face.”) It’s just another version of that “Smile, honey!” request called out from the corner. And deep at its heart is the idea that women’s faces should always be optimized for maximum likability and pleasantness, even when they’re waiting in line at the bank or leaving the drugstore or processing something, internally. It’s the expectation that women should always be smiling, because if all the world’s a stage, we’re here to be the background players.

Resting Bitch Face is part of a culture that’s constantly turning normal facets of women’s existence into problems. It’s one of an endless litany of instructions that women receive on a regular basis, an ever-updated set of rules on how to live, and how not to. Does your voice go up when you talk? You should fix that. Do you use “sorry” in emails to soften the cold hard glare of electronic communication? That’s a problem, too. The culture at large has opinions about the correctness of absolutely every aspect of women’s existence, from what we wear to what we eat to how we talk. Our society pathologizes women’s bodies, voices, and behavior, why not pick at the neutral facial screensaver that may of us have? Resting Bitch Face isn’t an actual condition, it’s a combination of being a woman and having a face.

Obviously, looking your most inviting and pleasant at all times is an insane standard. Maybe there are some humans out there who always look at their best and brightest when they’re on their morning commute or browsing for groceries, or even listening intently. And good for them! But I’m not one of them.

Or, I assume I’m not. The truth is that in those interstitial spaces—when I’m in front of my computer, or walking to the gym listening to a podcast, or talking on the phone to a friend,—I’m not thinking about my facial expression at all. In fact, those are the moments when I don’t have to worry about what I look like. Whether my face is acceptable to someone else is my last concern.

That’s the most insidious thing about the concept of Resting Bitch Face: It’s another way to chip away at the time that women are allowed not to be filled with anxiety about the way they look. Those moments are precious. They’re when you know you exist in the world as just yourself, as the protagonist in your own story instead of a player in anyone else’s. So listen to me. You do not have Resting Bitch Face. You just have a face. There’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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