I didn’t think much about it at the time: I was appearing in a short television segment and had quickly brushed my hair, then slapped on some concealer. I figured my glasses would cover the circles under my eyes.
Only later did I behold what I looked like — and it was terrifying. It wasn’t that I was disheveled; it was the actual face that looked back at me in the frozen screen shot.
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.
In that moment, I joined the ranks of a tribe of women who suffer from the scourge known as “resting (rhymes with witch) face” or, increasingly, just RBF.
If you’re up on your Internet memes, perhaps you’ve heard of its linguistic predecessor: “(witchy) resting face,” which emerged from a parody public service announcement.
For those who need a review, RBF is a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless. It’s the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something — or perhaps when they’re not thinking at all.
“Is there a filter on Instagram that fixes (RBF)? I’m asking for a friend,” actress Anna Kendrick tweeted, explaining recently to late-night talk show host James Corden that, “When somebody takes a photo and I’m in the background of it, I think, like, ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong with me?!’”
Other celebrities caught in serious repose: January Jones, whose “absolutely miserable” face made headlines last month at a Comic-Con event; Tyra Banks, who has famously advised women to “smize” (smile with your eyes); Victoria Beckham; Kristen Stewart; and Anna Paquin, who has defined RBF as “you are kind of caught off guard and you’re not smiling, and it means you look really angry all the time, or like you want to kill people.” (Also, in the less-chronicled male RBF category: Kanye West.)
Now, it’s safe to assume that humans have always made the Face. (Doesn’t the Mona Lisa sort of have it?) And it does have its uses. It is great for staring down Greenpeace solicitors on the street, or glaring at men who catcall you on the subway.
At a crowded bar, the expression can serve as a kind of armor against unwanted pickup artists (better, as one young woman put it, “than a fake engagement ring”).
And, as Tanya Tarr, a 36-year-old professional coach, described it: When engaged correctly, it can part a crowd on a busy street “like the Red Sea.”
But it is also a problem (and, like the term itself, one that seems to predominantly affect one half of the gender equation).
RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.
Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).
Country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped BuzzFeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).
A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.
“Yes, we’ve asked ourselves the questions you might be asking yourself right now: What relevance does this have in the workplace? Is this topic sexist? Should we write this story at all?” the publication wrote, noting the seeming absurdity of a business publication tackling RBF.
“But, after calling around the state asking more than a dozen C-suite women in multiple industries to weigh in on the subject, we noticed one thing: No one ever scoffed or even asked, ‘Why would this matter?’”
Yes, the tyranny of RBF is real.
For Nora Long, a 22-year-old intern at a Florida law firm, the struggle began in kindergarten, when her school’s headmaster summoned her to his office “because he thought I looked unhappy.” “From that day on until he left the school when I was in the seventh grade,” Long said, “he would say ‘Smile Nora!’ every time he saw me.”
Morra Aarons-Mele, a small-business owner in Los Angeles, said she “Botoxed away” her “congenital frown line” so that people would stop asking, “Are you mad?” “Then people were warmer to me — I swear,” she said.
Tarr, after being told by a mentor that her scowl was “setting her back” at work, began taking pictures of her face so she could try to look more cheerful. “I have since trained myself on what my face feels like,” she said.
There is some science behind it. Anthony Youn, a cosmetic surgeon in Detroit, said that as we age, the corners of our mouths droop, causing us to look a little more grumpy — a natural response to gravity and genetics.
In mild cases, this has the capacity to make a person look less cheerful when their face is resting. But in “severe cases,” said Youn, it can cause the face to look “mean, angry, and give people a false perception of what our mood is.”
“The mouth tends to denote a lot of expression,” said Scot Bradley Glasberg, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
But RBF is not a problem merely of the old. It matters at all ages because, as science has long proved, humans make judgments based on facial cues. Studies have found that people are less likely to find friendly-looking faces guilty of crimes; people who look “happy” are generally deemed more trustworthy, too.
And yet: Men do not experience RBF, at least not by name.
“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default,” said Rachel Simmons, an author and leadership consultant at Smith College. “We don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile. So if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.’”
“I like RBF,” Simmons said. “I think it’s fun to say. I think it can be empowering to own a serious face. But the problem with it lies with the fact that there is no male equivalent.”
For many years, studies have determined that women do tend to smile more than men, but not necessarily because they’re happier. (In fact, they have higher rates of depression.) Nancy Henley, a cognitive psychologist, has theorized that women’s frequent smiling stems from their lower social status. (She called the smile a “badge of appeasement.”) Still others have pointed out that women are more likely to work in the service sector, where smiling is an asset.
And yet there is also a kind of ingrained association between women and the friendly face. The phrase “Stop telling women to smile” has become a rallying cry for the movement against street harassment. Studies have found that smiling babies are more likely to be labeled female, while men view serious women as less sexually attractive than those who look friendly (the opposite of how women view men).
“One of my biggest pet peeves is when people come up to me in a social setting, where I am having fun, and ask, ‘Are you OK?’” said Talia Cuddeback, a junior at Barnard College in New York who suffers from RBF and wonders why she has to smile all the time just to show she isn’t angry.
Meredith Fineman, a 28-year-old founder of a public relations firm in New York, said she has perfected the art of her business smile during meetings “so that I come across authoritative but also accessible,” she said. (“I’m also very careful of not smiling too much,” she said, “as I am often afraid of seeming cloying or ditsy.”)
Sherelle Laifer-Narin, a radiology professor at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, said that she has mastered the art of the emphatic smile, which she plasters across her face during staff meetings to avoid the question: “Is everything OK?”
”During the first lecture of the year for my residents, I make sure to let all the first-years know that I don’t bite, just bark, even if my facial expressions might indicate otherwise,” she said.
And then there are those who rebuff the concept altogether.
“It doesn’t make me feel like I’m unhappy, un-fun or unpleasant,” said Noelle Wyman, 19, a junior at Columbia University. “My RBF makes me feel serious, pensive and reserved, like someone who only engages those who deserve it.”
Who has the energy to smile to strangers all day, anyway?