Memoirs of an Un-Smiling Woman

How does it feel to grow up with people constantly asking you, "What's the matter, sweetheart?"
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Fred C. Palmer/Wikimedia Commons

When I was 13 or so, I attended a self-defense workshop at a local women's-only karate studio. The thing I remember best, other than the pressure points on the male body (eyes! Nose! Throat! Groin!), is the verbal command we practiced shouting, to warn off street harassers:

"Stop! I. Am. Not. Friendly."

The thing is, I have never once in my life had to use these words. My face says it for me.

You see, I struggle with what comedic YouTube-ers Broken People recently termed "Bitchy Resting Face" (hereafter known as BRF). Their PSA-style video introduces us to the plight of women who look sad or pissed off for no reason. Women whose boyfriends always ask them "what's wrong?" Women whose apparent unfriendliness earns raised eyebrows from store clerks. Women who just look, well, bitchy. Even though they're not.

"That's Bitchy Resting Face," chorus the actors, Viagra ad-style.

That's me.

I have thick, dark eyebrows that tend to knit together when I'm lost in thought. My eyes, naturally almond-shaped, can look as if I'm narrowing them in suspicion. My mouth, when not actively smiling, settles into a rather grim line.

In short, I look like I'd rather eat you than talk to you.

When I was growing up in the South, strange men on the street used to holler one of the following:

"Smile, honey!"

"It can't be that bad!"

"What's the matter, sweetheart?"

I'd ignore them, setting my face into an even deeper scowl. Previously all I'd been thinking about was my pre-cal homework or what I was going to eat for lunch. Now I was genuinely pissed.

More distressing was the fact that I seemed to have to work twice as hard to make friends with my classmates. (Years out of high school, some of these same people confessed that they found me "scary" or "intimidating," a common experience for BRF sufferers).

It didn't help that my closest friend had the kind of round doe eyes that made strangers on buses spill their entire life stories. When we went out together, boys would flirt with her while edging warily around me. Mutual acquaintances would hug her as if they were great friends, while barely glancing in my direction.

At one of my first jobs, a more senior co-worker pulled me aside to ask why I looked so unhappy. "If you're having an issue, this office is a safe space for you to talk," he said.

I wasn't having an issue. I was just thinking about getting a cup of coffee.

I was in my early twenties when I discovered my problem, thanks to an Oprah episode about facial expressions. Everyone, Oprah's expert explained, had a natural resting face, the face they used when they were alone or lost in thought. Some were friendlier than others - it simply depended on the arrangement of your facial features.

"I finally get it," I told my mother. "It's my face!"

For a while, I tried chewing gum when out in public, hoping that the motion would set my face in a more pleasing position. But then my jaw started hurting. And then I stopped caring.

After all, there is something irritatingly sexist about expecting a woman to look friendly all the time. Men aren't bound by the same expectation. A surly looking guy can be considered sexy - a lone wolf, a James Dean. Un-smiley female celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Kristen Stewart get slammed in the tabloids for their "ice queen" demeanors, while no one would say the same about equally BRF-faced Alexander Skarsgard or Kanye West (seriously, guy looks like someone just killed his pet baby albino tiger or something).

For those of us whose faces don't fall into a natural cheerful position, constantly smiling can be hard work. As Katy Waldman at Slate points out, non-natural smiling is what social scientist Arlie Hochschild calls "emotion labor," the work of managing other people's feelings with your affect. Girls are socialized to do it from the earliest age, Waldman notes--parents smile more at baby girls than baby boys, and girls as young as 5 are more likely than boys to cover disappointment with a socially-sanctioned fake smile.

Forget that.

BRF, I've discovered, has its advantages. I've traveled the world solo, and very rarely been bothered. While female friends with more friendly, open faces report the standard street harassment - cat calls, men badgering them for dates, butt pinching - I float along in my own bitch-face bubble.

Outside the United States (and certainly outside the South), the tyranny of the smile is considerably weaker. In France, even women with the most naturally perky of faces seem to purposely cultivate BRF to enhance their je ne sais quoi. I live in Hong Kong, one of the densest cities on earth, where turning your face into a blank mask is simply a tool of urban survival. If I walked along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui with a grin on my face, people would think I was psychotic.

Which, come to think of it, might be its own method of self-defense.

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Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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