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!”
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.