To Smile or Not To Smile: Feminism and RBF

Or, less politely, “Resting Bitch Face.”

08.27.15
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A few weeks ago, Cara Delevingne’s Good Day Sacramento interview went viral after the actress responded less than favorably to the dull and condescending questions lobbed her way on the morning talk show. Delevingne’s tired expression acted as instant fodder for the peppy presenters, whose questions and comments went from, “Are you just exhausted?” to, “You do seem a bit irritated…take a little nap, get a Red Bull,” leaving Delevingne speechless before the tape cuts out.

Delevingne, according to popular culture, suffered from “RBF” or “Resting Bitch Face,” a topic which trend pieces jumped on after her uncomfortable interview. For the unfamiliar, Jessica Bennett, in her recent New York Times article on the subject, defines RBF as “a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless.”

In her Times piece, Bennett describes this distinctly female obligation — men are rarely affected by RBF, as they are expected to look serious — listing actresses who have been criticized for looking bitchy and women who have altered their resting expressions for their careers. The latter list is particularly disturbing, and includes a small business owner who “Botoxed away” her frown line and now swears “people [are] warmer,” as well as a woman who was told to look happier by her boss so she, “began taking pictures of her face so she could try to look more cheerful.”

What’s even more alarming about these stories is that RBF is, in a way, a reversal of the perceived problem with women’s speech patterns that made headlines a few months ago. From those pieces on the female tendency to over-apologize or “up talk,” the take home message seemed to be that women should try to eliminate words such as “sorry” and “like” from their vocabularies in order to be perceived as direct and serious. Yet that perception is exactly what seems to be causing women with RBF trouble — their “serious” faces are too off-putting. They don’t look happy or peppy enough.

As a woman reading and writing responses to these trend pieces analyzing female appearance, it’s hard not to just mic-drop my coffee, scream, “Can I live?,” and walk away from the computer screen. It seems like everywhere we turn, women are being barraged with suggestions on how to — or how not to — present themselves.

This is in part due to this new era of popularized feminism that examines practices women take to be “normal” — their voices, smiling at people — and reveals the misogynistic or otherwise offensive origin behind the behavior.

This is a positive trend, as it’s important to question our conventions, but it’s hard to know how to act once you realize there’s a gender power structure tied in to everything from your tone of voice to your decision to smile at the mail guy. Should we change our natural habits to start from scratch and demonstrate the equality we strive for, or do we continue to act and look the ways that have become comfortable for us? And do we set women back if we continue to act the way we were before?

These are questions we have to answer for ourselves, of course, and to each her own — it is difficult to navigate personal preference within the larger sphere of social change. But while we figure it out, maybe we can try to cut back on directing women to behave or appear any certain way, and argue not for waves of behavioral change but instead for personal choice and autonomy. Perhaps it’s about time we focus on eliminating not RBF or the words “like” and “just” from our lives, but rather, the phrase “women should.”

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