The grade was an “A,” but the accompanying report card comment had the sting of a ruler slapping the back of my hand. My teacher could find no fault with the work I was submitting, but my “attitude” in class was another story, he wrote. It wasn’t talking to other students, interrupting lessons or anything even involving words; instead, it was my facial expressions, which conveyed to him a lack of respect in large part due to insufficient smiling.
There’s a simpler, less formal way to summarize this: The 15-year-old me had Resting Bitch Face.
RBF, as it is most commonly known, entered mainstream vernacular in the early 2000s as a way to describe someone whose neutral facial expression conveys unintentional annoyance, contempt or irritation. The term is most often used to describe a female, and its surface-level humor hides the sexism at its core; its existence hinges on the idea that a girl or woman should appear pleasant and warm as a baseline state of being. Anything harder to read than that goes straight to “bitch.”
Fortunately for teenage me, my mom rejected this premise years before RBF was called RBF. She had always played the long game when it came to intervening on my behalf with anything school-related, realizing correctly that helicopter parents who treat every minor bump in the road like a crisis aren’t actually doing their kids any good. But this was one battle my mom was prepared to fight.
She immediately requested a meeting between me and the teacher, and though I was dreading the conversation, she helped me see the importance of breaking down his facial expression misreads by establishing more of a personal connection. I believe she hoped to improve future interactions between me and this man – who would be teaching me again later in high school – but also make him less quick to judge a book by its unsmiling cover.
As a mom of both two girls and a boy, I see almost daily the pervasive expectations of how they are each supposed to present themselves in public. I have lost count of the number of times one of my girls has been called out (in a joking way, sure, but still called out) by teachers for not smiling when she’s greeted at school drop-off. I mean, it’s 8am, 40-something degrees and they’re all wearing face masks due to a global pandemic – would you be grinning? Interestingly, no one in the parking lot has yet commented on my son’s facial expression or lack thereof.
My mom spotted this double standard decades ago, back when my first inclination was to apologize for how my face looks at rest. The meeting she arranged wouldn’t be an admission of any wrongdoing on my part, she said, because there wasn’t any. It would be a chance for this teacher to have a one-on-one interaction with me that would paint me more three-dimensionally in his mind from then on. And she was right, as she pretty much always is (so annoying sometimes!). I ended up receiving a college recommendation letter and a prestigious school award from that same teacher at the end of high school.
I can’t imagine telling any of my kids to smile more, beyond the yearly attempt to take a family holiday card photo. They smile when they’re pleased, amused or joyful; they cry when they’re sad; they twist their faces like dragons when they’re angry; and the rest of the time their faces are just…their perfect and perfectly unique faces.
I hope my mom, an early anti-RBF crusader, will be alive to see it relegated once and for all to the slang dustbin. Meanwhile, we can all keep working on our side eye, because that is a very real and useful tool of expression that transcends gender.