“Why don’t you smile, sweetheart?”
I turned my head slightly to face the complete stranger sitting to the left of me at the bar. For the umpteenth millionth time, some man thought it was his bound-by-duty job to tell me that I need to smile because my neutral face has an intense case of the phenomenon known as resting bitch face. And for the umpteenth millionth time, I flashed a tight-lipped, closed-mouth half smile in response while shooting daggers with my eyes. This smile was not a concession to his patronizing request but a prelude to me saying or doing something actually “bitchy.”
Despite the fact that I’m the one who wears this face daily, lots of people (mostly men and complete strangers) feel the need to let me know that my face often appears unhappy, angry, or bitchy. This is not a new experience in my life; since I was a small child, my face has refused to conform to society’s idea that females should be, or at least appear, perpetually happy. “This is just my face” became my de facto response when someone asked if I was upset or sad because my face wasn’t the embodiment of sunshine and rainbows all damn day.
But as I grew older, “resting bitch face” became a point of contention with me. First, the fact that it was termed resting bitch face made me feel uncomfortable because it inherently made the name feminine but only with a negative connotation. There’s still no demeaning male equivalent that’s used with as much laissez-faire as the word bitch, which probably speaks to the fact that patriarchy controls all parts of our lives—including semantics!
Then there was the fact that the term was rarely directed toward men (with the very minute exception of Kanye West, for whom smiling is a rarity worth celebrating)—men with sad, brooding, or angry faces or serious, sober countenances were “complex,” “stoic,” or “dark and handsome.” Furthermore, men are allowed to feel aggressive emotions that are considered taboo for women, which is why when women exhibit or even just appear to have angry or dissident or even just disinterested emotion, they’re branded as polarizing or bitchy.
And in my personal life, I felt this inherently. I’ve always been outspoken and extremely opinionated, but high-spirited discussions both in and out of classrooms were termed “rants,” a narrow margin for anything sexist or racist labeled me with “not a good sense of humor,” and I soon realized that not only did people always gravitate toward girls that were happy, laughing, and “easygoing” (and also looked that way) but that society on the whole punishes women who act independently of these tropes. Being friends with girls who had a “resting nice face,” if you will, and mild manners drove the point home for me with the positive affirmation that they largely received.
Self-censorship crept in despite the fact that I was raised to believe that I had a right to say and think what I wanted, that I should never apologize for being myself. Sometimes I felt bad because my face didn’t invite friends instantly and instead drew responses like, “What’s wrong?” or the dreaded “Why don’t you smile?”
Then one day I realized that resting bitch face affords me a freedom that people with nice faces just don’t have. I’m free to behave how and do what I want without the expectation that I’ll behave in a manner that someone who has a resting nice face would. I’m rarely stopped for directions by tourists. I know that I have the option to smile, but I also know that I don’t have to do it. I shouldn’t have to justify my happiness or lack thereof to people I usually don’t know and I probably don’t care about.
Now, I’m grateful for my resting bitch face; I embrace it because it’s an extension of myself, and that’s something that I refuse to apologize for. I unabashedly emphasize the facial traits that made me look perpetually aloof and slightly cold—strong brows over a cat eye with wings so sharp they could stab you, blood-red lipstick on a mouth that doesn’t fall naturally into a smile. And honestly, I also love my face as it is, whether it’s smiling, neutral, or very visibly angry. I’m a human with a full range of emotion, and my face reflects that, sexist aesthetic preferences be damned. Human beings aren’t happy 24/7 nor are they angry all the time. My resting bitch face is a counter space in not only a world that expects women to be capable of only a singular emotion (happy) but also a society that enables men to think that they have the right to tell me what I should look like and essentially what I feel. If I have to live in patriarchal society, I’ll take the agency where I can get it, which is why my resting bitch face won’t be going anywhere soon.