When Resting Bitch Face Is Actually Just Another Word for Social Anxiety

When Resting Bitch Face Is Actually Just Another Word for Social Anxiety

For as long as I can remember, people have had a problem with my face. 

Since I was a teenager, I've been told that I always look like I'm angry or displeased about something, even when I'm not. I have been told this by work colleagues. I have been told this by family members. I was told this by my boyfriend, who said that when we first met he didn't want to talk to me out of fear that I would "bite [his] dick off" if he came near me.

For years, I didn't know why people saw me this way, because it seemed so fundamentally different to how I saw myself. I'd always considered myself a fairly awkward and ungainly person, not some ice princess who made men's erections wither whenever they walked by. Then I heard about the term "Resting Bitch Face," and everything fell into place. 

I knew exactly what it was, I knew I had it — and I knew exactly why.

What "Resting Bitch Face" is really about: Also known as "Bitchy Resting Face," the condition has taken up residence in our cultural lexicon and been used to describe celebrities such as Kristen Stewart, Anna Paquin and Victoria Beckham. The New York Times recently devoted a trend piece to the phenomenon, describing it thusly: "RBF is a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply... expressionless."

The New York Times suggests that the perpetual frown is caused by the gravity that comes with aging. But RBF is arguably more about social convention — and which expressions go against it. The societal expectations of our faces are built into the phenomenon: If you're not happy-looking and perky, you're probably a bitch. 

There's also a gendered element at play here. Women are under enormous pressure to appear cheery all the time, or else face the harsh consequences in their social and professional lives. In fact, research shows that women feel more pressure to smile than men do, and those who don't smile often are judged as "less happy, less carefree and less relaxed" as those who do, according to a 1987 study from Mount Holyoke College. 

Calling out a woman's RBF is the equivalent of men on the street saying "smile more": simply another way for "people to police women's expressions to make them feel like there's something pathologically wrong with them," Taylor Orci, creator of the 2013 "Bitchy Resting Face" video, which popularized the term, told Mic.

Having a Resting Bitch Face goes against our cultural expectations for how women should behave. Which is why, for some of us, it's deeply connected to anxiety.

The darker roots of RBF: From my perspective, my RBF is inextricably linked with my genetic predisposition toward anxiety. I say this because I can pinpoint the exact moment that people kept telling me to smile more, and it was around the time that I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in my early teens.

Seemingly out of nowhere, everyone — parents, teachers, friends — started asking me why I looked "angry" all the time. "You always look like you don't want to be there," one teacher told me in a meeting after he gave me a C- in his class. "You seem angry, and it's turning everyone off." He was right that I didn't want to be there, even though I personally liked him and the class. I was just too busy obsessing over whether he and my classmates thought I was stupid and worthless to worry about anything else. Whether my face adequately reflected my appreciation of his syllabus was the last thing on my mind.  

It ended up being something of a vicious cycle: My facial expressions were in part the result of my anxiety, yet being constantly judged for something I felt I had no control over also fed that anxiety.  With every new employer or boyfriend's parents or mutual friend that I met, I was convinced they would hate me because I came off brusque or disinterested. Often, this would turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

"Feeling like your face is wrong is a shameful thing": At the time, I didn't realize that there was any relationship at all between my interior state and how other people saw me. It wasn't until I saw Orci's video that I could put a name to it and identify what, exactly, my RBF meant: that other people were picking up on my anxiety and interpreting it as coldness, or even meanness. 

To an extent, I feel like we shouldn't place the blame on the RBF-haver, but on the society that diagnoses RBF as a problem: We need to adjust our expectations of how women should look all the time, so we're not disappointed or personally offended when they fall short of them. But it's hard to express just how tough it is to walk around with the knowledge that how you come off to the world is so much different than how you see yourself. There's the lingering sense that all the tangled feelings of self-loathing in your head are right, that there is something wrong with you that is palpable to everyone around you, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Orci, who suffers from anxiety herself, experienced this firsthand during an acting class, when she read a scene as a girl-next-door type and was told by her director that he had one note for her: "Why so sad?"

"It hurt my feelings, because I went home that day feeling like I was wrong, which is different than feeling like something I did was wrong. Something I did wrong is guilt," she told me. "Feeling like your face is wrong is a shameful thing, and shame can do a lot of harm. Shame makes you hide, it makes you feel like everything's a secret. It makes you feel like you can't be your authentic self and be recognized."

Breaking the vicious RBF cycle: I'm not the first person to suggest that RBF can be viewed as a coping mechanism for anxiety. It's a recurring theme on the secret-sharing website Whisper, as well as numerous other anonymous therapy blogs. "I have also noticed that with many of my socially anxious friends, we all have 'bitchy resting face' and I wonder if that is our 'protection' from the perceived negativity around us," one commenter wrote on the e-therapy blog InnerConflicts. 

As Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Mic, in an "interpersonal situation, [Resting Bitch Face] may serve as a defense" for those who suffer from anxiety. 

"There's a pattern of expressiveness that's tied neurologically to emotions in the brain," she said. "But what you're talking about seems to be a learned behavior than a reflection of your inner emotional state."

So what's the fix? Like everything else about anxiety, it's not an easy one. You could ignore how others see you and focus on the swirling maelstrom inside your head, which will probably result in you spending a lot of time ordering Seamless, playing with your cat and avoiding small talk with the delivery man.

Or you can try to change it by smiling a bit more, chatting a bit more and playing the game as you think the world wants you to play it (even though you have no idea what the rules are, and when you smile and laugh and talk in honeyed tones you come off less as a nice person and more like a Scooby Doo villain undercover with the gang).

Or, really, you can lean the fuck into it. You can be angry, irritated, the girl who looks like she'll bite your dick off, because there are not enough women in this world who actively try to terrify men, and maybe if there were, men wouldn't have the balls to tell us to smile more. Be the woman who doesn't give a shit what her face looks like and doesn't care if you do either. Be the girl who's proud of the fact that men clear her path when she walks down the street. (That's one distinct advantage of RBF: You rarely, if ever, get catcalled.) Be the girl with the Resting Bitch Face, regardless of whether you're a Resting Bitch or not.

It is my genetic lot to live with anxiety, which means I will probably spend the rest of my life living in some degree of fear, of myself and of others. But one thing I will no longer live in fear of is my own face and its ability to reflect how I am truly feeling at all times. After all, it's the only face I have.