Do people look at you and think "angry, distant, mean"? You might be suffering from RBF

The scourge of Resting Bitch Face -- or, just another way to take potshots at famous women

Published September 21, 2015 10:57PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jim Cole/Reuters/Brian Snyder)
(AP/Jim Cole/Reuters/Brian Snyder)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

“Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30. But at 50 you get the face you deserve. ―Coco Chanel

AlterNetI have the scourge. They call it Resting Bitch Face, but it’s better known by its initials, RBF. As if I don’t have enough to worry about, suddenly I have to be anxious about what my face is doing when I am not thinking about what my face is doing.

An Internet meme derived from a mock Public Service Announcement called “Bitchy Resting Face” and subject of a recent New York Times article, RBF is variably defined as the relaxed, default expression on the face of an affected individual that conveys a look of bitchiness or anger, often the person is considered judgmental and mean. The Times story, written by Jessica Bennett, describes the moment she joined the ranks of women who suffer from the dreadful scourge when she saw herself in a frozen screen shot from a short television appearance.

“My mouth curled slightly downward, my brows were furrowed, my lips were a little pursed. My eyes aimed forward in a deadpan stare. I looked simultaneously bored, mad and skeptical. I was basically saying to the newscaster: Die.”

Living with RBF

It explains a lot: people generally leave me alone. A twenty-something co-worker who also suffers is chronically misunderstood by people in her life to be angry and distant and she regularly gets asked if she’s OK. Her mother admonished her for years to “fix your face.”  She also says that the “leave me alone or I’ll kill you” look on her face in no way represents generally what is going on in her head. She is really pretty happy most of the time, even quietly humming a pleasant song often when not otherwise engaged.

Experts in the field of human emotion research currently disagree on whether the face accurately and completely reflects inner feeling. There is considerable agreement on a strong link between the face and internal emotion, of course, and being social creatures, we do a lot of non-verbal communicating using the face and body language to signal other human beings. The degree to which the face always represents inner thinking can vary greatly, however, and the face is not simply a window into the mind. Thank goodness, since I am really not that angry all the time as my RBF would suggest. I am broadcasting the wrong message.

There are numerous lists of celebrities who suffer from RBF. Several of which — in an effort to not appear too misogynistic — feature a few men along with many pouty young starlets. lists Kanye West as its number three RBF sufferer and Simon Cowell is in the top 10. But while men may make token appearances, I think the list exists for the very reason of  taking potshots at famous women. Hillary Clinton weighs in at number two with Michelle Obama and the Queen of England making appearances on the list. But let’s face it, this mock affliction affects older women at a high rate. Gravity and loss of collagen conspire to pull almost every face into a permanent state of apparent grumpiness. Men, of course, experience the same effect but the usual double standard applies. Guys with facial crevices and gray, thinning hair are distinguished, women with graying hair and frown lines are just sour old bags.

Donald Trump’s default expression is one of the finest examples of RBF you can find, but oddly, his puss hasn’t made the list. He is apparently surging in the polls precisely because of his “fuck you” attitude and the sour glower that goes along with it. And, Trump is polling better among women all the while he continues to insult them, especially Carly Fiorina, for her countenance: “look at that face, would anyone vote for that?”

Come on, we know what that means. Subject to a harsh scrutiny that men don’t get, women aren’t allowed to just get old anymore.

Revenge of the permafrown

Among the treatments available for RBF are the usual list of minor cosmetic procedures like injectables and fillers from your local cosmetic medical specialist. In 2014, 13.9 million out of a total of 15.6 million procedures were the “minimally invasive cosmetic procedures” including injectables like Botox and Juvederm. According to the data, 91 percent of all cosmetic procedures are done on women and the age group of 40 to 59 accounts for roughly 50 percent of all procedures.

A more invasive fix, a surgical procedure for the permafrown part of RBF is the “Grin Lift.” A procedure that requires taking a small skin triangle from above the corner of each side of the mouth, turning that frown upside down, at the risk of looking like Cesar Romero’s Joker.

The increase in cosmetic surgery is not a new story, but perhaps what is a bit surprising is the apparent vast increase in its social acceptance and its increase across all social strata; it’s not just for movie stars and millionaires’ wives anymore. In some areas of this country, cosmetic surgery is becoming so commonplace that those who don’t subject themselves to anti-aging medical procedures are increasingly viewed with disapproval by their peers.

In this endlessly self-obsessed, youth-obsessed culture, permafrowns and wrinkles are not the inevitable signs of age and experience, but rather evidence of carelessness and lack of wealth.

Green Alternative

OK, so I don’t have the means or the inclination to Botox those angry lines between my eyes and get a grin lift. But I am still concerned with what my face is saying about me without my consent. Perhaps with a little concentration and exercise I can work my face back into a more pleasing countenance. The Internet has all the answers of course and in answer to my inquiry — face yoga.

Touted by its fans as better than Botox, face yoga can supposedly iron out those wrinkles and restore a smooth jawline as well as ease headaches and eye strain. Done properly its advocates say results are possible in as little as seven days and you might eventually take five years off your face. In theory the skin is tightened along with the muscles underneath as they get stronger and more toned and production of collagen is encouraged. Like my face, I am skeptical.

Another old-time alternative to modern medical interventions is tape. A longtime Hollywood secret, movie stars wore surgical tape across their forehead  frown lines at night to smooth the wrinkles out with, they must have believed, lasting effect. I will tape up after the yoga session and maybe tie a string around my finger to remind me to keep smiling.

Tormented Smiles

Gender rules of engagement for face and body language dictate that women are expected to smile more than men, and they do. Except for me. Both men and women smile authentic smiles equally, about 20 percent of the time studies show. The artificial smile pasted on for sociable reasons is much more likely to be done by women, however. In multiple studies women report smiling more than men and in many different situations. While women are considered to be generally the more empathetic of the two sexes, another reason why women may be socially conditioned to smile and be nice has to do with social hierarchy and keeping the peace. Among primates, smiling or showing the teeth closed together is almost always considered a sign of submission.

In an article by Katy Waldman for Slate, she discusses the tyranny of the smile. Expected to broadcast cheerfulness, girls learn early on to disguise true feeling and put on a smile especially to avoid conflict or discomfort. From the Slate article, women learn to control their feelings and expressions in order to manage and foster good feelings in those around them. Smiling, it seems, is less an expression of internal feeling but rather done for the benefit of others around you. And if we don’t smile women are more likely to be judged as rude.

So maybe in this non-verbal communication powerplay women are subordinating themselves by giving away all those smiles and weakening their credibility, especially in the work environment. Maybe women should smile less and embrace their outer bitch.

So, I’ve decided to give my face a break. The yoga only made my cheeks hurt and the tape ended up smoothing only the pillow by morning time. My face and I will just have to disagree from now on, except when it comes to presidential politics — we both agree it’s a bitch.

For more information on the scourge of Resting Bitch Face, here's a "public service" video:

By Glynis Sweeny

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