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On My RBF: I Swear I’m Nice

By: Christina Lee

 “There’s the look,” my friends point out when my face goes slack, my expression blank. My face naturally sits in a way so that my mouth rests in a small frown, my eyelids heavy in a supposed glare. Acquaintances and even present-day friends repeatedly tell me stories about how scary I was when they first met me, how unapproachable I seemed. My former English teacher once claimed that I looked disappointed in everything he said due to my blank expression as I sat in his class.

The truth? I have an RBF—a resting bitch face.

The viral video “Bitchy Resting Face” popularized the concept in 2013, and many celebrities including Anna Kendrick, Kristen Stewart, and Kanye West have brought this phenomenon of frowny-faced, unamused countenances to mainstream attention and “RBF” to everyday lingo.

As for us non-celebrities, we have simply found a way to identify our history of social misunderstandings—“Are you okay? Are you mad at me?”—with a convenient and often humorous label. We can now justify our bored expressions with an “It’s just my RBF,” and try to laugh it off.

However, creating a convenient label doesn’t change the idea that there still exist inconvenient social implications and potential gender bias within the nature of the term itself.

According to Marianne LaFrance from the Department of Psychology at Yale University, women do tend to smile more than men; this prediction can differ according to the social and cultural situations, but perhaps the nature of women, supposedly to smile more, can add to the level of discomfort or offense others feel when they catch them not smiling. Maybe they’re just having a bad day, right?

I know that regardless of the number of “bad days” I experience, one thing stays constant: my face. Why put a label to something I can’t change? Better yet, why label this phenomenon to imply my “bitchiness?”

Examining the facial feedback hypothesis, a psychological concept first developed by Charles Darwin and William James, suggests that facial expressions, whether they appear to be frowning or upset for example, may actually influence the emotions themselves. In other words, my face intensifies what I feel; my face in truth is adding to the bitchiness I’m feeling. Sure, I’ll give you this one—maybe I am a bitch.

Yet, we must consider the implications of attributing this phenomenon of unintentional scowls to the temperament of women. We must consider why LaFrance states that smiling “is the normative” among women, why women learn to smile more than their male counterparts to ease social situations and avoid appearing “cold.” Or why men are calm and collected, authoritative and justified, and seemingly exude a take-no-bullshit attitude when they are not smiling. Surprise, women don’t take bullshit either!

Only recently has it crossed my mind that out of all the other thirty students in my high school classes, I have been singled out as someone who should “smile more,” who is the “bored” or “scary” one—even more infuriating when my peers around me look just as bored, if not more. Perhaps the submissive and quiet nature of what the shape of my eye and the tint of my skin suggest adds to the prejudice that others demonstrate, or at least think, when I am in my tight-lipped, emotionless state. Perhaps my P.E. teacher took my silence as discomfort and thought that asking me why I don’t smile—“Aren’t you happy?”—would help me feel any less uncomfortable. I will admit that I can’t say for sure whether these perceptions of me are the results of potential gender bias, subtle racial stereotyping, or maybe the fact that I am just a scary person.

Regardless, it’s safe to say that I would appreciate it, and I’m sure others who have similar experiences will too, if you greet me politely, rather than commenting on my expression or mentioning how intimidating I am. Just say hi—I swear I’m nice.