Do You Suffer From “Bitchy Resting Face”?
The psychological implications of this quirky phenomenon and how to combat it.
Posted August 5, 2015
It was a beautiful rare sunny day in Oregon when I sat up tall in the hairdresser’s chair beaming with excitement as I prepared for my blowout. I’d only been there a couple of times, reserving such a trip only for special occasions. As one with naturally curly and sometimes unruly hair, I always marveled at how the stylists managed to stretch out my strands, making them feel silky and smooth. Rarely does a curly girl ever get the full satisfaction of running her fingers through her hair.
As I sat there excited, I looked over to the only other patron seated there about 5 chairs down. I made eye contact with her through the mirror and smiled, figuring she must be experiencing the same joy I was feeling. And yet throughout the entire process, she had the same expression on her face. Not quite sad or angry, but somewhat annoyed? Expressionless? Mildly irritated? I couldn’t imagine what or why, until I remembered a colleague once mentioning the phenomenon of “bitchy resting face”(BRF). I’d heard it before, and never fully understood it. Until that moment at the blowout bar, when it clicked.
I looked up the aforementioned affliction, realizing once again I was late to the party. I found a satirical YouTube clip with 6 million views uploaded 2 years ago which can be found here. It jokes about being a victim of BRF. They can’t help what their faces look like they claim. Others having written about BRF arguing that women are judged more harshly for this. This is due to the gender stereotype that women naturally ought to smile more.
Dr. Christopher Olivola assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon has studied decision making and facial biases. He has found evidence of “face-ism” the idea that we make decisions based off of trustworthiness, competence and other factors solely based off of facial features. Dr. Olivola has particularly examined neutral faces, which can otherwise be thought of as “resting faces.” In an interview with Today found here, he shared that his own resting face has often been misinterpreted as mean or angry. These are however superficial cues that are typically incorrect.
In his studies, he found that raters consistently rated faces as angry or happy. This led to conclusions that the angry individuals were less trustworthy and that the happy ones were more likely to be competent. The implications naturally are significant, as he also found those viewed as less trustworthy were more likely to get convicted. Furthermore, candidates who looked more competent were more likely to get elected. Ultimately, these are hard-wired biases that are tough to over-ride without intentional effort.
But what about an affected BRF? While genetics cannot be controlled, one might argue the media proliferation of BRF examples abound. Kristen Stewart, Victoria Beckham, and all three Kardashian sisters are cited as frequent offenders on celebrity BFR lists such as those listed here and here. Certainly there are those of us who unintentionally may don a less than pleased countenance when preoccupied, stressed, or simply unaware. But the rampant show of BRF can’t help but reveal a cultural obsession with looking cool, detached, and frankly, irritated. Not unlike the trendy hashtags #firstworldproblems, BRF seems to be an outgrowth of just this. Never satisfied, and looking too cool to care. My latte was too cold, I guess I’ll purse my lips, lower my eyebrows, and suck in my cheekbones.
The problem with BRF on a psychological perspective is that it denies us of the opportunity to express gratitude and joy at the many simple pleasures of everyday life. It normalizes being irritated and high maintenance, suggesting that this is how the trendy and glamorous among us behave. Furthermore, when young teens emulate this behavior, they often lose out on critical prosocial learning. Making friends does not occur through scowls and huffy faces. Smiles, warm body language, and putting down that wretched cell phone however may just do the trick.
The expressions we wear on our faces are not merely masks that do not impact us. On the contrary, we all learned the “fake it till you make it” notion of smiling to feel better. Naturally, this speaks to the average individual, as you’d never suggest to a clinically depressed person that they simply ought to “cheer up.” But rather for those us of facing daily inconveniences of traffic, long lines, and slow service, an attitude adjustment can make a huge difference. So don’t let BRF happen to you. Find ways of cultivating joy every day. Start a gratitude journal, have coffee with a friend or eat outside in the park on a sunny day. Life is a heck of a lot more fun when you just let it.