This essay was originally published on Medium on April 18, 2017.
I get told to smile a lot.
The reason for this is because when my face is relaxed, or emotionless, it doesn’t settle naturally into a smile. In fact, when my face is relaxed, I actually look like I’m seriously contemplating the Space-Time Continuum and/or like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter, when something is being engulfed in flames. And our society prefers women to be smiling. So obviously, this is problematic.
In high school, a group of kids in my class started calling me “Depressed Girl.” Which was embarrassing. It was also a constant reminder that I was actually dealing with depression and anxiety that I was trying to keep a secret. Being repeatedly reminded that I looked depressed only worsened the situation by stigmatizing my mental health issues and making me feel guilty for having them. I would sometimes do a sarcastic smile in response, but inside, I felt like disappearing.
Throughout my twenties and thirties, I’ve been told that “You’re prettier when you smile” and “You should smile more.” I became hyper-aware of when I was and wasn’t smiling. In times that I was dealing with depression, those same feelings from high school resurfaced. I learned how to fake-smile. I eventually accepted that my smile was something others could request, like it actually belonged to them and I was just holding it for safe keeping. I accepted that this was normal.
When the term “RBF” aka “Resting Bitch Face” emerged, I was, like, “THANK YOU FOR EXPLAINING MY LIFE!” I used it to defend my lack of smiling. I used it as a joke. I used it as a shield. I used it often.
It wasn’t until recently, when I stopped caring if people like me, that I began to examine my relationship with my smile. And the thing is that I love her, my smile. She’s natural, genuine, twinkly-eyed, and toothy. She’s often, but not always, accompanied by my laugh. She comes around when I have a moment of pure joy; when I see videos of adorable animals; when I hear a story that touches my heart; when a friend, loved one, or tv show makes me giggle; when I get to eat delicious food or see an amazing part of our planet; when I’m proud of myself; or when I’m just happy to see someone. My face has created little wrinkles over the years, dedicated solely to her. She’s endured two rounds of braces, a short-lived retainer, bad kisses, good kisses, and a variety of lipstick shades. There’s not another one like her. She’s all mine.
But my face at rest, when I’m not smiling, is pretty great too. She’s a really even mixture of both my mother and my father’s genes. It’s hard to say which one I look more like. She functions exactly how she was designed to. She has a hard time masking my emotions. Whether I’m feeling angry, depressed, nervous, or just shocked while watching Big Little Lies, she will let you know. She’s more sensitive than she likes to let on, but one thing she is not is bitchy and she resents being called that. I’m sorry I did for so long. She’s just as genuine and natural as my smile. And that means she does not enjoy faking it. Smiling, that is.
When a woman is told to smile, it’s being assumed that her face is there to be consumed by onlookers. She’s being told that her face, in its natural state, is failing at confirming to society’s idea of the Ideal Woman. That the onlookers, the consumers, don’t find her naturally appealing. We’re given two options: Offer up a non-genuine version of our smile or have our face be labeled as a Bitch. From now on, I’m choosing neither. I don’t like fake smiling- it’s uncomfortable and devalues my real smile. And my face doesn’t deserve to be called names.
Instead, I’ve come up with a response. The next time a co-worker says “Smile, gurrrl,” or “Let’s see that smile!” I’m going to respond with “Nope. Can’t. This is my Resting ‘I truly don’t care what you think’ Face and she’s not going anywhere anytime soon.” Of course, that’s easier said than done and it may take some practice, but my relationship with my face and my smile are too important to sacrifice in order to please the onlookers. My smile is mine and I don’t need to share it with you.