People Have Judged My Face For Years, And I'm Over It

by Jennifer Jarvis Burt
Originally Published: 
A woman looking at the mirror as people have judged her face
Anna Efetova/Getty

During the second week of my sophomore year of high school, my language arts teacher grabbed my arm and stopped me after class.

“Stop giving me that face,” she said.

“What face?” I asked, taken aback.

“You know what I’m talking about. That face — the one that could stop a clock.”

Twenty-five years have passed since that encounter with my teacher, but I’ve never forgotten it. Disoriented and humiliated, I left school that day wondering what I had done to warrant her vitriol. After all, I listened intently to her instructions during class, I never spoke out of turn, and I regularly contributed to class discussions.

For days, I stood in front of the mirror and studied my face. Did the problem lie in my overly thick, severe eyebrows and penetrating dark brown eyes? My bone structure? Perhaps I made eye contact too often? I couldn’t say for sure.

So I practiced the “right” kind of eye contact, glancing away periodically so my teacher wouldn’t perceive me as being overly aggressive. For months, I worked on softening my fierce facial features. Relaxed brows. A slight upward quirk to the corners of my mouth. Tilted head to show interest and curiosity.

Sound ridiculous? It should.

My behavior in class was exemplary. I won’t excuse how my teacher handled the situation. As a forty-something female, I now understand the message she tried to send me.

She told me my facial expressions stretched beyond what was comfortable for others, beyond what was comfortable for her. At 16 years old, I was too young and inexperienced to appreciate that I didn’t exist to make her or anyone else feel comfortable.

My outsides didn’t match my insides. They still don’t.

A boy I liked in college informed me that I’d be beautiful if I smiled more. My use of the word boy to describe him is purposeful here because he was, in fact, just a boy. As a young adult who was learning to navigate romantic relationships, it stung. Cue more doubt and anxiety.

As I spiraled further into the vortex of adolescent self-loathing, I understood one thing with absolute certainty: Society expected me to smile at all times. People wanted me to fake authenticity.

The term “resting bitch face” (RBF) was popularized in 2013 with a series of memes and gifs. People use it to describe an individual (almost always a female) who appears angry or irritated when in truth, they’re relaxed or content. Often, it’s hurled at a woman for not having her face arranged into a pretty, perfect smile. The horror!

Countless times, I’ve been told my face looks too severe or that I come off as unapproachable or unfriendly. Strangers judge me for it because they assume I’m judging them first. Trust — I’m not judging you. Better yet, I couldn’t care less if you’re judging me.

Listen, I refuse to fake a smile to make other people feel more comfortable. You want to call it resting bitch face? That’s on you. For me, it’s just a face.

Authenticity matters. At least, to me, it does.

“Stop giving me that face,” “Smile more,” and the rest of the advice others fed me over the years told me I didn’t quite fit. It took years of examining those early experiences to realize my fear of rejection caused me to adapt my behavior to others’ expectations for me. It takes honest work to release a pattern or habit that no longer serves you.

I spent decades wondering what I could do differently. Preoccupied with what I wasn’t, I couldn’t see what I was. And I was a good listener, attentive and curious. Bless it — the world needs more listeners! In a society full of noise, there exists plenty of space for quiet contemplation.

The peace I have now was worth the confounding interactions I experienced with my language arts teacher and that boy I liked in college.

When you need someone to be present and patient, I’m your girl. My love for people is so enormous; it often overwhelms me. Maybe you won’t see it reflected on my face, but believe me when I say I carry it inside of me.

I see you.

I see your silent suffering, your pain, and the way your eyes light up when you experience true joy. And I hear the words you speak and all the ones you don’t.

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