Person: “You know, the first time we met, I thought you were a bitch. But it turns out you’re actually really nice and funny!”
Me: “…Thanks.” Looking back, I didn’t even speak the first time I met this person. Ah, another thinly veiled reference to my default facial expression.
Other person: “Something about your face, I don’t know, I always thought you hated me or something. Or I did something to make you mad. But now I get that’s just your face.”
Me: “I see…” I have never thought about this person one way or another in my entire life.
If I had a nickel for every time someone felt compelled to comment on my “resting face,” you know, the neutral expression I don when listening, or observing, or walking, or otherwise minding my own fucking business, I would have many, many nickels. With my many, many nickels, I could probably afford to buy a cheap ski mask to make everyone happy — but that would bring about a whole host of other issues.
I have grown tired of being policed about my facial expressions. And I specifically use the plural here because I regularly reveal many different expressions since I largely lack a poker face, but people continue to see what they want to see. It is exhausting and there is not much I can do about it — it’s how my facial muscles work — and there is also not much I want to do about it. After all, I am not responsible for mediating people’s responses to my face. I have more important concerns in life.
This is a deeply gendered issue. Women are supposed to smile and be pleasing and accommodating and friendly and warm. And a woman is judged instantly (and to her detriment) as possessing none of these qualities if she doesn’t use or possess the correct facial expression. On the whole (black men may be excepted), men are not held to the same standard when it comes to regulating their faces in public. The term ‘resting bitch face’ is obviously gendered. It is meant to punish women who do not conform. A grumpy old woman is just a bitch, but who doesn’t love a grumpy old man? See perceptions of Hillary Clinton compared to Bernie Sanders for an example of this double standard.
Very important as well, is the racial element of facial monitoring. A resting bitch face in a black woman moves her from judgemental or intimidating to aggressive or simply ANGRY. So many times, I have been asked what I’m angry about when I’m perfectly content. And this is by my friends. I can only imagine what most strangers and casual acquaintances are thinking, although, as evidenced above, sometimes they go out of their way to tell me.
All this facial monitoring has a pernicious effect. It makes the subject — usually a woman and often a visible minority — much more self-conscious. It is inhibiting. Sometimes, it is even marginalizing. I have to think very carefully about how I sit, how I stand, how I walk, how I dress, how I style my hair (afros just scream black power, apparently), all to mitigate the effects my face might have on others. And if I don’t feel like doing that, and I usually don’t, I must suffer the negative consequences.
Facial monitoring has had the most negative effect on the way I speak. For a long time, I just didn’t speak that much, especially if I disagreed with someone. I didn’t want to be perceived as arrogant or aggressive or angry. When I realized this was actually stunting my intellectual growth, I decided to throw caution to the wind and express myself more freely. But it’s difficult. Being a woman, I make the conscious effort not undermine my own points or be overly self-effacing, as I feel we women are far too pressured to express ourselves publicly in such a way. But this lack of conformity on top of my default expression and indelible blackness can sometimes see people take things personally that they otherwise would not. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for me to try to craft a public intellectual persona with these challenges, and to experience these reactions to my face and demeanor on a macro scale. However, perhaps I owe it to my many black, bitch faced sisters to give it a shot.
There is, nonetheless, one positive consequence to people’s responses to my face — one small joy. Many times, my facial expression has stopped men from “holding forth” in my presence. When I use that term, I refer to Rebecca Solnit’s excellent and well-known essay, “Men Explain Things to Me.” In it, she describes the experience of dealing with an unreasonably confident man explaining the merits of a book to her, which, unbeknownst to him, she actually wrote. She paints the vivid picture of the man wearing “that smug look [she] know[s] so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”
All women have encountered this man, likely many times over. It’s funny because when he speaks, I am usually not judging him so harshly. I generally find blowhards amusing and they spare me the effort of having to do my part in small talk. Nevertheless, I feel that every man who silences the women around him with his ignorant and unrestrained verbosity needs the experience, at least once, of being stopped in his tracks by what he falsely perceives as an antagonistic facial expression. I am happy to oblige in the hopes that that brief moment of self-doubt will lead him to learn self-restraint, although I think that outcome unlikely.
Overall, though, I’m just tired of having to negotiate this issue. My face is my face and it is very insulting that people expect me to change it to suit their preferences. I’m quite happy as is, and if people take a long time to get that or they don’t get it at all, then so be it.
Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. Kindle AZW file.