Back in 2012, I laughed along with everyone else when memes making fun of McKayla Maroney’s so-called “resting bitch face" popped up. For those living under a rock (or never-ending piles of laundry), RBF is a face that, when at ease, looks angry, contemptuous or bored. I joined many a debate about whether it was fair to criticize McKayla for not living up to our expectations that young girls be peppy and smiley all the time.
We don’t criticize boys for letting their pleasing smiles drop now and then, so we should back off the girls. Why should MacKayla have to smile through her disappointment that the gold medal slipped through her hands? We don’t expect that of our male Olympians.
And of course it’s not just female Olympians like McKayla in 2012, or more recently Gabby Douglas, who are criticized for their less-than-content expressions. Female celebrities are accused of throwing shade or being cold when pictures of them surface without their trademark smiles. Just ask Victoria Beckham, Anna Kendrick, January Jones, and Kristen Stewart—all of whom have been accused of sporting a RBF. Notably, the only male celebrity who has been accused of RBF is Kayne West.
Also back in 2012, my daughter was a smiley 2-year old. When I championed the right of young girls to drop the smiley-smiley act whenever they wanted, it didn’t feel connected to my baby girl with the sunny disposition. No one expects eternal graciousness and smiles from a baby.
That look on my daughter’s face? It was so uninviting, so off-putting that it repelled a playmate.
But now it’s 2016 and that sunny baby is a full-fledged grammar school student. And she’s not a 24-hour a day smiler. In fact, her resting face looks like a scowl. If she were followed by paparazzi (God forbid), there would be an unlimited stream of photos recording what can only be described as RBF.
The first time I noticed it, she and I were at the park with her dolls. A little girl approached us at the swings. When my daughter looked up, her face was most definitely not a picture of welcoming enthusiasm. Her brow was furrowed, her mouth was sloped downward, and her eyes set into steely stare—it was a look fit for McKayla herself. The other little girl seemed about to say something to my daughter, most likely a request to play with her and the dolls, but when she registered my daughter’s face, she silently slipped into the swing next to us. Like a good helicopter parent, I intervened by introducing myself and my daughter. Eventually, a bona fide playdate took place.
But what about that look on my daughter’s face? It was so uninviting, so off-putting that it repelled a playmate. As her mother, I know that she’s shy and being approached by strangers—even 5-year-old girls at the park—makes her uncomfortable. It’s not easy for her to incorporate someone else into her trip to the park. She’s set in her ways, likes things to be the way she planned them in her head, and needs a few minutes to adjust to new people and new stimuli. She’s not a kid who can smile while processing all of those emotions.
And perhaps more importantly, she doesn’t like to pretend to be happy when she’s not. She also doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If she’s not interested in what you are offering, she will be polite, but she won’t smile like a pageant contestant.
Most damning of all, I have never once considered lecturing my son about his smile. To me, that was all the proof I needed that the whole concept of RBF is inherently misogynist. (As if the “bitch” part wasn’t evidence enough.) Cognitive psychologist Nancy Henley “has theorized that women’s frequently smiling stems from their lower social status,” thus their smiling is a “badge of appeasement,” reports the New York Times. That is absolutely the last badge I want my daughter to acquire.
I’m grateful I resisted that impulse to pressure her to smile. The last thing I want her to teach her is that it’s her job to pretend to be enthused or jubilant to make other people feel comfortable. Smiling all day takes so much energy, and she’s going to need her energy to smash the glass ceiling.
So what should I do about my daughter's RBF? How about this: celebrate it, support it and love it with all my heart.