Can we talk for a minute about RBF?
RBF, or Resting Bitch Face (also known as Bitchy Resting Face), is a term for the common neutral noncommittal facial expressions of some women. Not ALL women, mind you, but some women. Certain women, you might say.
Certain women with a reputation for being too serious. Or thoughtful. Or introverted. Or intellectual.
Certain women who are well-known Feminist Killjoys.
Certain women who are “attractive” enough to merit street harassment.
Certain women, in short, whose default facial expression is somehow out of alignment with the harshly-enforced cultural mandate that, in order to occupy the space marked “feminine,” people must fulfill a decorative function at all times.
Let me be VERY clear: this is about objectification. This is about women LOOKING a certain way, regardless of how they feel or what they desire. This is about the society dictating what is acceptable in terms of the impression given to random passers-by on the street by a woman’s facial muscle positions and activities.
Obviously this is bullshit.
I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for months waiting for inspiration to finish it, because I could get as far as “bullshit” but no further. I wish I could convey dismay, shock, or outrage, but those are hot-burning emotions and I don’t really feel them about this subject anymore.
Not because it’s unimportant, or because it’s not worthy of passionate criticism, or because I’m not upset about it, but because, as someone who has met the appearance parameters for a sexually mature woman for 15 years, I have burned through all my hot and passionate feelings on the subject of street harassment and society telling me that the impression my appearance gives to strangers is my responsibility to manage. I am left with impotent frustration, and a kind of righteous indignation, which are much less motivating to write about.
But I think that the very fact that I’ve become inured to this kind of policing, at the relatively young age of 27, makes it worth talking about.
So, let’s break it down.
As social animals, humans create a social order, which is constantly adapted and maintained by displays of threat and submission behavior. In apes, the most salient submissive behavior display is the baring of teeth, also called the fear grin. Some extremely hierarchical groups of macaques use teeth baring almost reflexively upon the approach of the dominant animal, and the most common result of the interaction is that the dominant animal allows the submissive to retreat, which removes the submissive animal from the risk of physical abuse. Apes in more egalitarian societies, such as chimpanzees, use teeth baring as an appeasement gesture that seems to invite social interaction within the group by reassuring the other animals that the bared-teeth individual does not intend to cause them harm.
The analogous smile, in humans, serves many of the same functions: it reassures others that the smiling person does not pose a threat, it is an invitation to social interaction, and it often accompanies courtesy phrases (such as “excuse me” or “my mistake”) used to signal a known violation of social norms. There is evidence, however, that smiling is also perceived by humans to be more feminine than other facial expressions.
In one study, babies dressed in green and yellow were paraded before a group of onlookers. When the infants cooed, gurgled and smiled, the observers tagged them as girls; fretters and criers were assumed to be boys. The effect persisted when a different group of participants was presented with images of cheerful or angry adult faces. People readily identified smiling women as female and wrathful men as male, but they took longer and stumbled more often when confronted with furious female countenances or beaming male ones.
— Katy Waldman, Slate
The Slate article goes on to rather weakly associate women acting as smilers with social affiliation management– positing that girls and women are trained to smile more in order to do “emotion labor” (i.e., smooth over social situations and bridge differences between groups of friends and extended family)– before lamely concluding that everyone should smile a bit more because it would make the (female) journalist herself smile.
The truth is that humans have a range of emotions– and related expressions– almost unique in the animal kingdom, even among social animals (only orcas are believed to experience more emotional states, and it’s not entirely clear yet how they communicate them without the mobile face of the ape). So for most people, most smiling is the companion of genuine positive feeling, whether they are remembering a funny joke or glorying in the sun on their face for the first time after a long winter. But there is another kind of smile that isn’t related to emotion.
The Duchenne smile– named after a 19th-century French neurologist– is the genuine kind. Its display is correlated with positive emotion, and it involves both the muscle groups around the mouth (zygomatic major) and the eyes (obicularis oculi). It’s fairly rare, and occurs with similar frequency between men and women. The smile that humans use purely for its ability to diffuse tense social situations, often called the botox or Pan Am smile, uses only the zygomatic major, and women report using it much more. (The open-mouthed play smile, by contrast, is not related to the bared-teeth display, and is instead itself present in lower primates in the “play face”, and eventually develops into laughing in humans.)
The early smiles of human infants are a mix of Duchenne and Pan Am smiles, and while their cause is not well understood, it is likely that the Duchenne smiles are a response to pleasure and contentment (joy is a more mature emotion, and develops at around 9 months of age), while the Pan Am smiles are socially-driven or even reflexive. Even near-term premature infants learn to mimic the facial expressions of their caregivers (it only takes about 10 days to train human infants from about 34 weeks’ gestation onward to stick out their tongues in mimicry), and the relatively immature human infant relies on social affiliation to live, so it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that babies are trained to smile in reflex to adult smiles, even in the neonatal period.
But when does gender enter the equation? For many American parents, gender policing starts long before birth, and many studies show that parents have different expectations of infants as young as four months old based on their physical sex. By the age of five years, female children are adapted to performing more emotion labor than their male peers, and are more likely to exhibit a smile (a Pan Am smile, of course) in response to receiving a disappointing gift.
The false smile can take a real toll on your health. Flight attendants, from whom the Pan Am smile got its colorful name, report feeling robotic, artificial, or even distant from their own emotional realities after a long shift with the zygomatic major engaged. While it is true that deliberately smiling can trigger more positive emotional cues in the brain, smiling because you are told to– when you’d rather not– can be damaging.
What does all this mean about Resting Bitch Face?
- Smiling is gendered work, and women are expected to do it. Even little girls are tasked with a disproportionate amount of emotion labor.
- Social smiling is based on a primal, non-verbal language, and women are under a greater societal expectation to communicate that they are non-threatening and open to interaction or afraid and subordinate.
- Women who appear in public without their smile are perceived as hostile and aggressive partially because of mammal-level animal reasoning, but there is no way to ignore the gendered nature of smiling, especially when street harassers so often publicly shame and threaten women for their neutral or negative expressions.
At its core, the tyranny of the smile is about gender policing. At its core, the gendered nature of emotion labor is about allowing men to have full rights and freedoms at the expense of women. At its core, the social smile is about fear and submission. At its core, RBF is about women being objects.
TODAY wants to reassure you that you can get plastic surgery to fix your RBF (apparently that’s a thing), or you know, you can at least work on smiling a bit more so people will be less worried that you might be doing something dangerous, like thinking:
Ann-Marie Stillion, a communication strategist and artist from Seattle, says she’s recently made an effort to wear a smile when in public after having her resting face repeatedly misinterpreted by strangers, friends, and colleagues.
“I look mad when I am thinking which has gotten me in a whole lot of trouble,” she says. “So, I smile a lot now, not because I’m so happy but because I know it makes people more comfortable.”
And people are welcome to take those routes because Underpants Rule.
But as for me, I will be proudly taking my RBF to the streets, because I am not an object.
Not a decoration. Not a sex toy. Not a social lubricant. Not a service tool.
Additional Science Facts Sources: