Living with Bitchy Resting Face Nothing to Smile At

Jun 16 at 6am

Remember last year when Funny or Die shed light on a dangerous and ubiquitous but uncommonly diagnosed affliction known as Bitchy Resting Face? For the millions of people out there who actually suffer from BRF, it wasn’t just a meme we could laugh at and quickly banish from our thoughts ­– nope, because BRF is something we have to (bitch) face every day.

So while it may seem that all there is to say about BRF has been said (it’s hilarious, obnoxious, sexist, and probably the reason you – okay, me – weren’t named editor of your high school yearbook), I’m here to tell you how my life has changed as a result of my diagnosis with BRF.

When the Funny or Die video went viral, my immediate reaction was one of recognition. Finally, I thought, there’s a name for my face. Ever since I was a toddler I’ve struggled to convince people that I’m not pissed off or stressed out or otherwise upset. And when I say toddler, I mean it. As an eight-month-old, my mother famously took me to audition for a coveted spot in a Gerber baby campaign for which I was summarily rejected on account of my baby bitch face.

As the years passed, I came to simultaneously love and loathe my BRF. I loved it for sparing me the indignities of the tortured life of a child star, or of being mistaken for a friendly local and having to provide directions to the nearest In-N-Out. But at times I also loathed it because people tend to think I suck. From the second grade teacher who accused me of showing no remorse when a classmate’s father was suddenly hospitalized to the stranger who spit on me because I “gave him the side eye,” reactions to my BRF have ranged from hurt and confused to, well, screw you too.

While the male equivalent Asshole Resting Face does technically exist, it certainly hasn’t been discussed and dissected with as much gusto as BRF. Because we all know that when a man looks serious he’s pondering the great philosophers or solving differential equations, but when a women looks serious it’s because she has sand in her vagina.

So when BRF became a thing, I, like so many others, considered it a rallying cry. Not only did we nod our scowling heads in recognition, but a significant chorus also cried out in defense of BRF. It wasn’t a cross to bear so much as it was a badge of honor.

Angry-looking women the world over have leapt out of the woodwork to declare themselves members of the tribe. They rightly pointed out that by going about their business in all of their bitch-faced glory, they were, at worst, just being themselves and, at best, making a statement against the so-called tyranny of the smile. Because so often the backlash against BRF is really just a thinly veiled antifeminist barb aimed at women who don’t conform to traditionally narrow gender stereotypes. In other words, women who don’t seem nice. And while the male equivalent Asshole Resting Face does technically exist, it certainly hasn’t been discussed and dissected with as much gusto as BRF. Because we all know that when a man looks serious he’s pondering the great philosophers or solving differential equations, but when a women looks serious it’s because she has sand in her vagina.

Even the fact that BRF has become a culturally relevant term is telling. It's completely unnecessary to call out every behavior in women that’s seen as somehow being unpleasant. We BRFers think deep thoughts, we are as annoyed by the guy clipping his nails on BART as you are, we haul rocks, and some of us, like the lyrical Lady Gaga, were just born that way. In other words, BRF is pretty reductive. Can’t a woman be angry without being a bitch? Do we possess such a narrow view of female emotions that there’s only bitchy and everything else? And, frankly, do we really need yet another dis designed solely to disparage women? So when the blogosphere came down hard on haters of BRF, I was nodding (though not smiling, naturally) in agreement.

The resounding and unequivocal conclusion was that BRF is not a problem as much as a source of pride, and that those who insinuate otherwise are participating in the tired patriarchal ritual of reducing a woman to the sum of her physical parts. They’re ignoring the fact that we have hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares – and that it’s almost impossible to divide by 17 in your head with a smile on your face, dammit – that we are entitled to express.

While it was simple enough to catch myself whenever I was zoning out and looking mean, or to smile maniacally at baristas and bus drivers, it was a lot harder to maintain a constant facade of pleasant distraction. I call this phase of my effort to eradicate my BRF “Mildly Constipated Resting Face.”

On the one hand, amen, but on the other, isn’t smiling, like, good? Isn’t laughter the best medicine? Even though the people who are constantly imploring women to smile are a bunch of yo-yos and yahoos, they’re not completely without merit.

Because here’s a fact of life it took me way too long to come to grips with: Good advice from bad people is still good advice. So when that creepy drunk guy shouts at you to just “smile, baby” you may not want to give him the satisfaction, but why deny it to yourself? Because smiling is like whole-grain Hot Pockets: It’s good for you even if it’s not natural. Doesn’t a cheerful countenance – authentic or otherwise – help fight depression, memory loss, gingivitis, and, even crime?

And thus, I embarked on a journey to, as they say, turn my frown upside down. It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure. Because BRF is not actually born of being a bitch, it wasn’t always immediately obvious when my face was seemingly set like a sullen serial killer. Nor was it obvious exactly how I could reverse decades of what was, essentially, my face. I won’t say that I watched the late ’90s cat-and-mouse action thriller Face/Off for inspiration, but I won’t say that I didn’t either.

Turning off BRF turned out to be much easier than keeping it off. While it was simple enough to catch myself whenever I was zoning out and looking mean, or to smile maniacally at baristas and bus drivers, it was a lot harder to maintain a constant facade of pleasant distraction. I call this phase of my effort to eradicate my BRF “Mildly Constipated Resting Face.” As the name suggests, my new look was more awkward and uncomfortable than hostile or unhappy. The forced smile was clearly not my forte. I soldiered on, summoning happy thoughts and mirthful memories in an ongoing attempt to appear less angry. The results? Mixed at first.

Some friends were sure I had done my hair differently while others insisted I had “completely lost it” or “had an irritating speck of dust in [my] eye.” One particularly astute cashier at my local bodega seemed to notice a change, though he attributed it to my unprecedented and unlikely seven game California Lucky Life winning streak (to be fair, even in my formerly bitch-faced life, a $7 bonanza would have definitely warranted a smile).

I don’t get bent out of shape when someone throws shade because they think I’m the one who started it, or when people ask me why I hate their grandmother’s prized red velvet cake recipe. I pay closer attention to the emotional cues I’m creating with my face and wherever possible try not to scare any small children or animals. 

In the end, smile though I tried, nature ran its course. But I did learn that creepy drunk men will shout at you whether you’re smiling or not, and that spreading a little sunshine here and there is not the worst thing in the world.

I’ll probably never be someone who’s described by strangers as jolly or jovial or any of the other adjectives we use to talk about Santa Claus. And I’m okay with that. Because I’ve come to a comfortable compromise, something I refer to as “Slightly Less Bitchy Resting Face.” SLBRF means that I don’t get bent out of shape when someone throws shade because they think I’m the one who started it, or when people ask me why I hate their grandmother’s prized red velvet cake recipe. It means that I pay closer attention to the emotional cues I’m creating with my face and wherever possible try not to scare any small children or animals. I also go to the dentist more often.

If nothing else, I can tell you this: There is life after BRF. Like walking and chewing gum, smiling when you naturally scowl takes practice and a sturdy jaw. But seriously, try it, you might like it. If you’re not convinced, just remember: It takes 42 muscles to frown and a mere 17 muscles to smile … but it takes absolutely no muscles to sit there with a slightly confused, but utterly harmless look on your face.

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