To Smile or Not To Smile: Feminism and RBF

Or, less politely, “Resting Bitch Face.”

08.27.15
Wednesday-Addams-From-Addams-Family-man-repeller-resting-bitch-face

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.”

margaret-friends

  • Sam

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  • Molly

    “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?”

    The only way women can “set women back” is by siding with the patriarchy (in this case, demeaning women for how we’ve been conditioned to act by the patriarchy – these things that are “comfortable to us” are almost all strategies to make women less assertive in a male dominated world).

    If we succumbed to the demands of those who are oppressing us, they’ve won. Women’s rights is a men’s issue – women shouldn’t have to change who they are to be accepted and equal, but men (meaning patriarchal society in general) need to learn how to treat women as human. Suggesting it’s up to women to change their speech or face is essentially victim blaming.

  • Amelia Diamond
  • As someone who looks like a cross between a cat and a praying mantis I learned about 20 years ago (I’m 42) to alter my resting expression, mostly bc I was tired of frightening small children and animals. As I’m tall & shy on top of everything else I wanted to look more approachable. So, I cultivated a benign expression. Not a manically cheerful ax murderer thing, but more of a wistful gamine expression. <—- totally not even joking. I watched and rewatched films, esp "Sabrina".

    And, grossly enough, it worked wonderfully. Like SUPER wonderfully. And it's not that I'm never unhappy looking, but I tend to keep my expressions as unambiguous as possible. That way it's easier for people to read it and ultimately easier for them to help me when I need help. When I don't want to be bothered, I put my sunglasses on or stare at my children or phone, whatever's with me.
    So while I think it's beyond gross for people to tell a woman (and it's always a woman, never a man!) to smile, it kind of changed my life.

    There's a postscript of sorts- For the first time in years I was incredibly preoccupied and had to run into the supermarket for something. As I passed a man and his teenage son, the man remarked, "That one's high maintenance!" I was so offended I almost stopped, until I realized, "I don't give an eff what he thinks. I give an eff about finding some Hidden Valley Ranch Dip." But it was enlightening that that attitude was being passed from father to son still! I mean it's 2015!

    PPS- I should also mention that I prefer it when people (esp men) smile slightly or don't have RBF. I find them less intimidating. I don't care if it's fake. I sort of equate it with being polite in public.

  • dk

    Where do I sign this, especially that last line?

  • Andrea Raymer

    My brother had RBF. actually worse than that. He looks completely ridiculous when he tries to smile sincerely, like cherub in a Renaissance painting ridiculous. but no one ever attributes that to an attitude problem (except me, but I’m his sister, I’m allowed to).

    I, too have trouble smiling sincerely, but people make fun of me when I don’t smile with my teeth in photos. My brother gets made fun of when he does.

  • Autumn

    Standing ovation. Loud applause. Stadium-size cheering section. That was beautiful, just beautiful.

  • mollie blackwood

    Yes to all of this. I also feel people in general should be more aware of RBF. I’m thinking campaign style with posters and PSAs. I’ve been called out in meetings at work (by a man) multiple times and my only explanation is “this is my face.”

  • elizabeth

    Every day my dad dropped me off at school as a kid he would leave me with a reminder to “be sweet.” While this may sound like yet another instance of a male telling a female how to act, I think he was on to something. RBF and ways of speaking shouldn’t really matter if you treat people kindly – with what you say and what you do. People can smile all they want and still be awful humans. A woman can speak strongly but not have an ounce of confidence in anything she’s saying. I think if we add a touch of sweetness/kindness/humanity/grace to how we interact with others, how we look or how we sound will take a backseat to what we’re doing and saying.
    I totally get Cara’s reactions – it looked like maybe she couldn’t see them, so her listening face was a bit misconstrued. It’s like a Skype call where the video and sound are cutting out. Jokes fall flat and conversation generally lacks the natural rhythm that it would have in person. Perhaps she could have dialed back her sarcasm a little to better fit the format of the interview. It could also be chalked up to a complete disconnect between American humor and British humor. REGARDLESS…be sweet, y’all.

    • Gabrielle

      I don’t see any British humor in Cara’s interview at all. What I see is a response to lazy journalism and a lack of professionalism. The anchors wasted Cara’s time with insulting questions and remarks- “Are you capable of reading?” “Is your career so difficult that you must take frequent breaks from it?” “You look tired. Have a nap and take a red bull.” The anchors turn on Cara when she doesn’t live up to some preconceived quirky bubbly image. Would such an interaction occur as frequent, if at all, should a man been in Cara’s place?

      • Paula Immich

        Gabrielle, you are so right. I think the “journalists” were impolite with their idiotic questions: they talked to Cara as if she were a stupid doll or a little girl. From Caras expression one could tell she didn’t feel taken seriously by the journalists – they were mean behind their smiling faces. Looking at this from a German perspective I am afraid it is a very American thing.

        • Anna Cork

          Perhaps they spoke that way because in journalistic code, previous journalists had noted such items as “C. DeL falls asleep in interviews” and they are just giving her professional s&*^ for her unprofessional behavior early in her career. Secondly, a natural RBF condition could make you pre-disposed to old-school expectations of modeling and they may be trying to see if she is capable of natural, non-Instagram laughter.

  • see, I have what I call BARF: bitchy ANGRY resting face. (and no, I don’t use the phrase “resting bitch face”; it’s “bitchy resting face”–“bitchy” modifies “resting face”). Always have. I’ve been told by many people I seem intimidating, but I’m actually very warm. But I’m not Mother Theresa. This has the benefit of preventing randos from coming up to me on the street, usually. My response when someone commands me to smile is either to bare my teeth (think snarling wolf-bitch) or to say “I smile when I feel like smiling.” I think I can get away with this to a certain extent professionally because I work on a staff comprised entirely of women and that’s been fairly constant throughout my career. But if my BARF and my attitude mean I’m perceived as bitchy, I’m kind of okay with that. Smiling doesn’t make one a happy or good or pleasant person. Plenty of times I’ve said cutting things with a pleasant smile on my face.

  • Wanjiku

    “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.””

    THIS.
    And I hadn’t thought about it the way you put it: that criticism of the RBF is the other side of “vocal fry” criticism. And it is, because that’s what power does, it literally leaves no room for people to be themselves. It’s similar to rules about expressing sexuality: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. and even worse for women of color, or low income women, who have to deal with another layer of junk when it comes to rules about what they ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do.

    Thank you for writing this, Margaret!

    • Kelly’s Gross-o

      Wonderful points. I hadn’t linked it to the vocal fry debate but you’re absolutely right!

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  • kani a.

    I get that if you’re working in a visual medium, having a positive disposition is kind of important, but the way those anchors were making fun of her because she had the nerve to be a little dissatisfied in the morning made me really uncomfortable. I completely agree that it feels like there’s no way to win, and we should stop trying to get women to conform to a standard of what behavior is “respectable” and just let us live. I loved this piece.

  • My dad has RBF, and I tell him to smile more because he looks like he is upset at everyone. Which, honestly, does affect how warmly people treat him (restaurants, services, etc.). But no one really comments about it outside of our household.

    I do think there is an assumption of how a woman should behave. Needs to be kind, but then needs to be strong. If our habits are in fact setting our gender behind, then it becomes a problem. Such as, accepting lower wages, or letting men insult them. However, I say good morning to my coworkers every morning and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop just to be more “authoritarian”.

  • I hadn’t heard about that interview until now, and watched it after reading this article… W. O. W.

    As somebody who most definitely has BRF (agreeing with Stephani about the need to change the qualifier here, as I am not a “Bitch”) I have long suffered both, in my perception, obnoxiously cheerful, men and women telling me to “smile!” more. It is nails on a chalkboard. My own mother refused to buy my school pictures growing up because she claimed I never smiled in them, even though I thought I was smiling… I mean, you’re forced to dress up and stand around in your school gym for hours while some creepy dude shines big lights on your face and hands you some gross hair comb so your parents can have a photo to frame that haunts you forever (hello 4th grade awkward phase). What’s to really smile about in this setting? I miss math class. But I digress.

    I know the effects BRF has on my experiences in dealing with others, particularly in the service industry. My normally lackluster expression or tone of voice screams “I hate everything” and calls for people to treat me as such, even tho I am always polite, and almost always happy, relaxed and easy-going. And actually, I do smile a lot: when greeting others, or when something makes me happy (which is very common)… but still.

    Once I realized that it may be my lil ol’ face causing people to cater less to me, or accuse me of being unhappy, I decided to actively try to be more chipper in certain situations (typically of the service sort) but alas, I must read as a faker – things did not improve much, leading me to frequently quote myself, to myself, “I guess I’m just a dick in a drive-thru” (followed by laughter, also to myself).

    This led me to think a couple months ago, maybe if I cut some cute-ass bangs I’ll look less threatening… and it worked. People treat me better with bangs. Whatever you gotta do.

    I really believe “women should” not anything. Or men for that matter. The pervasive attitude of condemning non-bubbly dispositions really irks me, especially coming from some bozo morning show hosts. LEAVE CARA ALONE! But until women take over the world, we may just have to do a little fakery to get ahead, whether it is toughening up a meek personality, or doodling some girly hearts on a hardened one. Cut some bangs, smile on the outside, and be smarter on the inside, as we climb over all the ding dongs who tell us how to be.

  • Yes to ALL OF THIS. I was so happy with how Cara dealt with those horrible presenters.

  • Carolina

    Yes to all of this !

    • Margaret

      YES

  • Lua Jane

    Wow! Awesome read. Really. You did a great job, asking all the questions I internally ask my self as a woman on a daily basis. What is ok for us to be? And how much of what we do, and the way we act is culturally conditioned versus the true impulse we have as women. How to tell the difference. We’re raised in a society with set of many misogynistic norms even in the most innocent of situations, so how much of what we do is really us, and how much is learned behavior, before we even had chance to realize we’re learning it. And as you put “Can we live?” If laughter and smile is a sign of weeknes, but resting bitch face is a sign you need a rest or maybe even a therapy, because as a woman, who gave you the right to be serious and detached. It’s troubling.

  • Carol

    Applaud! The constant reminder to be ‘happy’ and ‘laughy’ just doesn’t work for everyone. But I am more conscious of it than ever before in the last couple of years as I catch myself in the mirror ( I don’t worship the mirror) and notice I look frowny and yes, have the RBF going on. It never was an issue for me till now. The corners of my mouth are a tad droopy now that I am older so I smile more and consciously do so. It makes a difference to your mental state too for sure. So, it can get tiring smiling all the time till I cave in for a Botox or face lift jobby.

  • Marta P.

    I remember when a former boss of mine in an all-male office gave me a talk to tell me to smile more. I took it as a good advice back then, for about a week. Then I was like WHAT

  • Junglesiren

    It’s f**king annoying that men enjoy the luxury of being themselves without such trivial considerations. If it didn’t affect our earning potential as women we could look, talk, dress and be however we wanted. We could walk around the office thinking about business without diluting that good thinking time by worrying about our facial expression.

    We could talk like little girls (I do hate this one and think it really messes with your earning potential but…) or speak with the vocal fry (becoming “a thing” thanks of course to the queen of the planet K. Kardashian whose vocal fry makes her sound like a woman whose never had a complex thought penetrate within a five mile radius of her brain – just my opinion – I’m sure she’s BRILLIANT) without men (or women) thinking that we’re stupid.

    We could wear afros to the office and not worry that colleagues will think you’re making a black statement when in fact it’s a question of ease, time, money and health – and often a fashion choice.

    TV news women wouldn’t look like rejects from the ’70’s show Dynasty with all that vulgar hair and make-up. Hell, those girls have to be “pretty” and many have to be perky. It’s the f**king news but believe me, they’d never hire Madeleine Albright to deliver it. I bet she has RBF. I bet she doesn’t give a s**t.

    Anyway…. she said, fanning herself and clutching her pearls… Be yourself girls, just keep in mind your “self” may be irritating or threatening to others and that will probably affect your career. It’s good to know and sad to know all at once.

  • Katie

    a thousand times yes! For me that is the nub and the gist of it all – acceptance of whatever the hell kinda women/people we want to be. Serious or not serious, saying ‘like’ all the time or not, as long as it is not motivated by what other people want or feel you have to be as a woman, then go for it.

  • cheshirecat5ever

    Actually, my brother has had to alter his resting expression slightly for years, because otherwise he looks surly and finds that people assume he’s angry about something. He had to learn to smile slightly all the time. So, although it may be more common for women to need to alter their facial expressions, some guys need to, too.
    Good article, though. I’d never really thought about that.

  • BK

    Everybody has RBF compared to over-Botoxed, partially deranged morning show co-hosts. They’re more like caricatures of people than actual people.

  • Paula Immich

    I very much agree about this smiling -business that women often enough including myself are caught up in.
    One of the things that got my attention immediately about this blog was that Leandra Medine often not smiles in her interviews or photos. I found this ‘not-smiling’ interesting:
    I wonder why we are expecting women to smile – especially when they are talking about trivial things like fashion?
    And on the other hand why are women/models in fashion pictures almost never smiling?
    Women are said to be very influenced by the media- beauty- ideal. But then why are so many of us smiling so hard in life? Maybe because femininity can be intimidating if you cut short on the smiling…?

  • MippysMom

    The spams in the comment section are giving me an active bitch face.

  • “I was like, these are the same people that made fun of me, and posted the stories that were so awful, calling me fat for something I couldn’t control. I don’t want to smile for them.” – http://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/news/a30082/kim-kardashian-c-magazine-interview/

  • Annika
  • Bella

    Amen!

  • Alice

    We should pay a little less attention as to what we are told to do; if you feel like smiling, smile. If you see there’s a need to be serious be serious. Men who have RBF are not liked that much either because as a rule we always gravitate towards people with a warm disposition – may it be male or female.

  • r

    i have actually done the opposite, and cultivated a less friendly face so people don’t talk to me. I work in the service industry though, and for that I need “customer face”… it truly is exhausting. Though I notice how much my unfriendly face works when I get off work and am still in customer service mode– you would not believe how many people try to talk to me. I am not an especially beautiful person, I guess guys (mostly terrible, sexist, gross guys) just see availability and jump to it.

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  • Margareth

    HI

  • Margareth

    Hi, Did you see the interview? I know this is an old post but I just read it and I find it very unfair. I understand why would you be defending Cara even when it’s obvious she was rude and unpleasant to those doing their job- you would get more from that position than from the position of being fair. They were very nice and friendly to her and she goes and even say “I don’t know where that came from” If she thought that a local tv show wasn’t good enough for her then she shouldn’t have gone. It’s not as simple as smiling or not her attitude was of superiority, she was annoyed and yes, she was angry. Did you really see the interview? Be fair and say the trueth. It’s not always about benefiting yourself and trying to look good to famous people.