stop telling me what to do with my face

A couple of years ago I saw an interview with Henry Rollins where he said that people always ask him why he looks so angry all the time. He said his face is in a “relaxed state of aggression,” meaning his face at rest just looks, you know, kind of pissed off.  He’s not mad (well, except for in that “Liar” video), he just looks that way.  I can relate.  My eyebrows naturally seem to gravitate downward.  All too often I notice that I’ve been frowning — like, aggressively, like so aggressively that my brow is furrowed to the point where I already have wrinkles in it at 25 — for god only knows how long.  I can’t help it.  My face just wants to look that way.

Henry’s lucky.  He’s lucky because he’s big and scary-looking and intimidating and he’s a man, so when people assume by his default expression that he’s angry or upset, they simply give him a wide berth.  On a man, a constant look of mild annoyance says don’t fuck with me, and people don’t.  I bet that no one has ever stopped Henry Rollins on the street and told him to “smile!”

But if you’re a woman with a face in a relaxed state of aggression, you’re not so lucky.  When you’re a woman this affliction is called Bitchface and it causes people — well, men, really — to stop you on the street and say “Buck up!” and “It can’t be that bad!” and “Smile, honey!”

Chronic Bitchface” by Kris Atomic, an accurate representation of my daily life.

Why is this okay?  Why is it okay for men to tell women what to do with their faces?  Have you ever seen a man minding his own business get stopped and told to arrange his mouth in a fashion more aesthetically pleasing to those around him?  Probably not, because the act of telling absolute strangers to look happier is totally sexist.  I know that most men who go around telling women to smile are well-meaning, but still, why is it any of your business what my face looks like?  If I’m not crying or scowling then why can’t my expression just be neutral?  Does anyone actually just go around smiling like a loon all the fucking time?

Whether they realize it or not, men tell women to smile because if we don’t conform to their stereotype of charming flowers with heads full of glitter, it makes them uncomfortable.  A woman with a stern expression looks like a woman who’s thinking about Serious Things, and men are conditioned not to like that.  They want us happy, but more than that, they want us compliant.  Maybe they don’t think that’s what they’re saying to us when they tell we perfectly cheerful women without exceptionally cheerful faces to cheer up, but that is what they’re saying.  Every time I hear someone telling me to smile, I hear a man telling a woman to do something that he would never ask another man to do.

I have three stock responses when strange men tell me to rearrange my expression.  The first is to say “No, thank you.”  You’d be amazed at how much this simple reply takes people aback.

The second is to smile as horrifyingly as possible.

Guys love that.

The third response is best when I have a little bit of extra time or if the offender seems nice enough and merely ill-informed.  I like to tell men that if they want women to smile, instead of just shouting, apropos of nothing and for no legitimate reason, “SMILE!”, why not do something that actually elicits a genuine positive response?  Instead of a command, try an unsolicited compliment, a heartfelt greeting, or — who’da thunk — a smile.  If you want me to smile, do something that will actually make me smile.

Otherwise, stop telling me what to do with my face.


17 responses to “stop telling me what to do with my face

  1. Love, love, LOVE this post. Your “scary” smile pic is amazing. 🙂

  2. AMEN!

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stopped on the street and told to smile. UGH get off of it, men.

  3. God, I hate this.
    Random dude: “You look unhappy”
    Woman going about her business: “I’m not” (or at least I wasn’t a second ago but now I might be a little because you’re talking to me)
    Random dude: “Well, you look like you are.”
    Where did these guys get the idea that a good way to strike up a conversation with a woman is by putting them on the defensive?

    By the way, the internet has seriously misinterpreted the content of your blog. The ads that pop up are for websites that apparently will address such topics as “how to catch a man and keep him” and “Is he cheating?”

  4. THANK YOU. Thank you for saying this, and doing it so well. Maybe I suffer from bitchface too, because this happens to me all the time.

    In my opinion, I’d rather be outright sexually harassed on the street than told to “smile.” Because if a man tells me I have a great ass and what he’d like to do with it, at least he’s being honest with himself and me about his intentions. He wants to make me feel uncomfortable. But the guy who says “smile” actually thinks he’s being a nice guy. He thinks, I guess, that I’ve just forgotten to smile. That I have no real reason NOT to smile, which he couldn’t possibly know about me, but for whatever reason he goes ahead and supposes. And he thinks, of course, that what I really want most in the world is for a complete stranger to notice that I’ve forgotten to smile, and thrill me with his charming reminder. When in reality, all I want is to be given the courtesy he gives every other stranger on the street, the courtesy of letting them walk along their way unmolested.

  5. I am surprised I have never been told to smile – my bitchface might be super-extreme, or possibly no one where I live cares to harass me that way when they can just honk and holler – but I will reply this way if I am.

  6. I’d rather not be harrassed or told to “SMILE!” (both not too different from each other). “Well-intentioned” men, TAKE NOTE OF THIS ARTICLE.

  7. Hilarious post, and yet SO true!!

  8. Holy Shit. So true. I couldn’t write this more accurately. The only time I haven’t wanted to kill people who have made comments was when a really old homeless man told me “I should smile, because at least I still have teeth”.

  9. Well. Not to disagree with you, but just today my boyfriend said that some other MALE customer told him to “Cheer up, hun” at work today.

    Not only did he tell him to cheer up, but he called my boyfriend HUN.

    … so yeah. Males suffer from chronic bitch face, too.

  10. I love this post. So fucking funny and totally true, especially for me. I’m bitchface 24/7 and I love it. Also, love your pictures of bitchface and your smile, hahaha.

  11. Funny but true. As Candy noted though, it isn’t confined to women. Apparently I have this same sort of face as well. At least to my wife.

  12. This is my life. But you are much kinder. I usually go with the “go fuck yourself” response. So if my lack of smile didn’t severely bother them, my unladylike language surely does. Men… ugh.

    Love. This. Hard.

  13. I once was walking in a mall, worrying about my close friend’s son who was just diagnosed with leukemia, when a man shouted at me, “Smile! It can’t be that bad!” I’d been getting this on and off for a few years – but this time I let him have it, and told him I wasn’t a barbie doll designed for pleasant viewing, that I had a right to muse my own thoughts. I went on a feminist rant quite, totally out of character. For the record, as you get older (I’m now 48) men do this less. They prefer pretty young things to smile, I guess, and don’t care as much about middle-aged women.

  14. Miss Manners suggest that when told “smile,” one should answer “Why, did you say somehting funny.”

    Last time this happened to me, I asked the guy, “Do you know me?” I’ve decided, though, that next time it happens, I’ll say “Do five jumping jacks.” If he replies “WTF?” I’ll then say “Aren’t we telling random strangers what to do?”

  15. I was at a deli waiting for my order and kind of daydreaming when I heard the very young child in the arms of the woman next to me say “Mommy, why is she mad?” and point to me. I actually wish I could change my default expression as, scaring small children certainly doesn’t make me any happier! That said, I don’t disagree with ANYTHING in your post. Usually when people tell me to smile, they get a real glower in response as opposed to the reposed annoyance I give off.

  16. linked from a Salon piece, thanks for making me giggle. I do want to point out that the command to “Smile” can be rampant in Eastern martial arts trainings, especially those more imbued with New Agey trappings. It inspires just as much stubbornness and imagined comedic repartee to be asked to smile from a female martial arts teacher as a dude on the street.

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