DON'T TELL ME TO SMILE
NORMALIZING THE NEUTRAL EXPRESSION AND PUTTING TO REST THE 'BITCH FACE'
If you are a woman, you've probably had someone say to you, "SMILE MORE!", "You look prettier when you smile." or "Cheer up, darling."
I remember one encounter with clarity. It was lunchtime on a cold sunny day, and I was walking in the loop, Chicago's business district. I had my headphones on, listening to music
while briskly walking to my next meeting. A man in his late 40's wearing a suit gestures for me to stop and remove my headphones; I thought he was going to ask for directions. Happy to help, I took my headphones off, and the man said, "You should smile more; you would look prettier," and then he walked away. I stood there feeling wholly dumbfounded, a bit confused and angry! The unfortunate reality is, this is not the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last.
Women have been experiencing this type of micro-aggression for years in public, at work, and in social situations. According to a survey about the implications of facial expressions conducted by Byte, 98% of women acknowledged being told to smile at least once in their life, and nearly 15% recounted it as a weekly occurrence. Additionally, women who smile less are accustomed to being told they have a Resting Bitch Face or RBF. According to the same survey, Over 50% of the participants saw RBF as a negative trait, and 69% of women who 'self-identified as having RBF believed they needed to "soften" their demeanor. Telling a woman to smile may seem harmless, but according to Marianne LaFrance, Ph.D., professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University and author of the book Why Smile? It is subtle harassment and demonstrates a core lack of empathy.
"Though smiling is generally a positive characteristic, it falls to women to do more of it because we want to make sure women are doing what we expect them to do, which is to care for others."
When women are not being told to smile, they are accused of having RBF.
RBF refers to an individual who is displaying a neutral or expressionless face. Some say it's a woman with an unintentional angry-looking face. You probably had a good laugh about an RBF meme that flitted across your social media around 2013. It felt irreverent and lighthearted back then. Ironically the term "Asshole Face," also coined in 2013 to describe a man's blank expression, didn't endure.
The RBF phenomenon graduated from meme culture in the years following, becoming recognized in the literary and scientific community, picking up momentum after a New York Times article in 2015. Since then, it's become a household term, widely used by both men and women. It is not uncommon for women to get Expression Surgurys or receive fillers to “fix” their RBF. Dr. David Shafer from the Plastic Surgery & Laser Center in Midtown says this is a very common request from patients “They may not always use the words ‘resting bitch face,’ but if I mention ‘RBF,’ they say, ‘exactly.’ Dr. Shafer also cites that requests for these types of procedures have "more than doubled” in the last year.
But it's 2021; the #MeToo movement has swept the country, blazing a path for gender equality and exposing the misogyny embedded in our culture. We've also endured a global pandemic, consequently leaving female workforce participation down 57%—the lowest since 1988. So why are we STILL using a term that is inherently sexist and perpetuates gender stereotypes?
RBF is disproportionately used to describe a women's face yet, displaying a neutral expression OR unintentionally looking angry is NOT a uniquely female characteristic. Words matter; as much as women have owned the term 'bitch' and made efforts to reclaim it, the results have only been partially successful, which was apparent during the 2016 Election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, lest we forget "trump that bitch". Historically, the term ‘Bitch’ has been used to suppress women's rights and contain women, rising to prominence in the 1920s as the Women's Suffrage movement took flight.
Almost a decade after RBF was introduced, the country's social, cultural, and gender norms have changed. It’s time to reevaluate this term's casual use and normalize the 'neutral' facial expression amongst all genders.
Gender aside, many of us are unaware of the expressions we are conveying with our faces and our body. Both women and men can display over 10,000 different facial expressions. Just as thoughts are the brain's vocabulary, feelings are the body's vocabulary, and they are spontaneously communicated through our posture, gesture, facial expressions, movements, and tone of voice. Facial expressions are just one factor of communicative body language, and they can be more challenging to read independent of physical and contextual factors.
Alex Martinez, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University, found that attempts to detect or define emotions based on a person's facial expressions were almost always wrong. Martinez is focused on building computer algorithms that analyze facial expressions; he and his research team analyzed the kinetics of muscle movement in the human face and compared those muscle movements with their emotions. They concluded that it takes more than the facial expression to detect emotion.
Martinez said "And it's important to realize that not everyone who smiles is happy. Not everyone who is happy smiles. I would even go to the extreme of saying most people who do not smile are not necessarily unhappy. And if you are happy for a whole day, you don't go walking down the street with a smile on your face. You're just happy."
You might be thinking, "I can always tell if someone is happy or sad by observing their facial expression ." However, you may not be as skilled as you think! When it comes to reading facial expressions, we can more easily decode expressions that fall on either end of the spectrum. Think peak states of emotion, one end of the spectrum happiness, joy, and excitement, the other end sadness, anger, and fear.
Additionally, when speculating someone's facial emotion, you are most likely using
secondary cues, such as body posture, movement dynamics, proxemics, and context. Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, New York University, and Princeton University have discovered that body language rather than facial expressions provide a better cue in judging whether an observed subject has experienced strong positive or negative emotion. Meaning, it's easier to tell if someone is really happy or really sad based on the full-body rather than just the facial expression.
Emotions such as guilt, boredom, apathy, pride, and thoughtfulness are challenging to decipher in the facial context alone. The expressions associated with these feelings tend to be more subtle, therefore, less easy to read. Therein lies the problem with the term RBF; we can't be too quick to judge a neutral expression.
It's essential to remember expressiveness can be defined in more than one way; just because an individual doesn't have a smile slapped across their face doesn't mean they’re not happy, nor is a smile a prerequisite for existing in the public space. Before you tell someone to smile or ask if they are upset, remember facial expressions are only a small part of understanding emotion in expression. Remember that your observation is unique to your experience and not a fact about what that person feels on the inside. We know now that it’s not possible to read emotion from expression alone, so let’s put RBF to rest and normalize the neutral expression.
If you are looking to understand the expression of emotion on a deeper level, look to the body context to support the facial expression. Fine-tuning your nonverbal communication and observation skills can help you identify sensitive areas. Although we will never understand the full extent of what someone is going through internally, being aware of subtle nonverbal cues can aid in socially responsible behavior and interactions.
The Narrative Body helps groups and individuals connect and communicate better through a deeper understating of nonverbal communication and body language. Email Info@thenarrativebody.com to learn more about our one-to-one offerings and group workshops.