The Bitch Face

Who here has a bitch face?  I’m talking about the face you make when you’re thinking about something, or just relaxed, or trying to figure something out, or listening attentively, and then people think you’re mad at them.

Only women have to modulate our facial expressions when we’re trying to figure out some important scientific theory or risk being called a bitch.  WHAT THE HELL, YO.  Stupid patriarchy.  Only in a patriarchy can we not even think without enacting femininity, or else.  My thoughts are my own and not everything is about you.  Students expect women faculty to be expressing care for them, in a way that I don’t do and in a way that is not expected from men.

If I am mad at you, I’ll tell you.  If my face seems to be scowling, I am probably just thinking.  It’s not your right to have women smile at you all the time!  When I’m thinking hard, I’m really not monitoring my facial expression, because that takes processing power I don’t feel like stealing from my thoughts, and also I don’t care about whether you think I’m nice.  (Except, sadly, my tenure committee does.)  I’m not a rude person and I don’t behave inappropriately at work.  But I do, on the good days, think about things at work.

This is just what my face looks like.  It is here for me, not to make you happy.  In what world would a man be criticized for what his face looks like, and it would have any effect on his career?  Grrrr.

and in other news:

Believe it.

Who’s with me on the rage?

47 Responses to “The Bitch Face”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I hate it when people comment on the state of my face. One time, a man left the dipstick to my oil just lying under the hood. The next time I went in, he checked the oil. I told him to make sure he put the dipstick back. He got all offended because I was telling him his job. I told him about the dipstick being left out for over a 100 mile trip.

    His retort: You know, everytime you come in here, you look mad. You never smile. (He had to attack me since he had no defense for his error.)

    Of course, I told him I was not obligated to smile for him, I was obligated to pay $$$ for gas, that when I had to smile to get gas, he could pump it for free. I informed him that I was thinking about my classes for the day, how tired I was, and how I was going to get everything done. When I think, I think; I don’t try to make him happy.

    He started sputtering as I drove away, smiling at him, telling him I would never be back. I never went back.

    You hit a nerve!

    Have you ever read the book–“Reflecting Men at Twice Their Natural Size” by Sally Cline and Dale Spender? A woman should not have to prop up the male ego with her smile! Grrrr

  2. mareserinitatis Says:

    LOL! My older son, who is usually not perceptive at all, would frequently ask me if I was mad about something when he was in his preteens. I’m glad he asked, though, because I was able to tell him that, no, I was just thinking. After a few times, he started asking me if I was just thinking. Yep, he had it.

    I guess I’m okay with people asking if they genuinely are concerned that I’m upset. Based on my son’s questions, I must look awfully pissed when I’m thinking. However, if anyone were to tell me I shouldn’t have that expression, then they can bugger off.

  3. lcevering Says:

    Amen, sista! I’ve dealt with this for 24 years, first as a teacher, now as a college of Ed faculty member. I work mostly with women (always have), many of whom are also mothers (I am not, never chose to be) They are more nurturing than I am, and I’m often criticized because i don’t seem to “care” about students, have an assertive personality, or walk around with a “bitch face!” :-) Yet, the men have never had that expectation….

  4. Perpetua Says:

    I’m with you, as one bitch face to another! I treat my students with respect and concern, but I do NOT nurture them. I used to get that sh*t about my face all the time – in college – but I haven’t heard it in a long time, thankfully. But it’s clear from the experiences of women everywhere that men are constantly asking/demanding that women smile at them. So offensive!

  5. Liz Says:

    Yay, I’m not the only one! It’s funny because, when I’m not hard-core focusing on some deep thought or process, I get tons of comments on my radiant, infectious smile. When I’m working however, I look angry and it upsets people. I guess there’s a balance in there somewhere.

  6. Dr. O Says:

    Hmmm, not sure if this is simply an evil patriarchy issue. Hubby has the same problem – when he’s thinking, or sometimes just relaxing, he makes this awful face that makes people think he’s pissed, including myself. I get the same reaction for my thinking face from time to time. I just always thought some people, male and female, had more of a tendency to make “that face” when concentrating.

  7. rented life Says:

    3 generations of it. Someone ask why my gram was upset prior to my cousin’s wedding. She wasn’t, she was tihnking. But her and I both have the same shape mouth–relaxed, it looks turned down so we look sad when our face is relaxed. My mom sometimes sighs at work. A co-worker told her she should “just smile!” (I said she should tell the co-worker “If you did your paperwork properly I wouldn’t sigh.”) I have been told numerous times this year that I look to sad/angry, etc while at work. Maybe it’s because you people are pissing me off saying stupid stuff while I’m working. But really? It’s because I’m thinking hard. I’m in a groove. I don’t wanna “relax” I want to keep moving.

    My husband’s thinking face is pretty similar to the I’m hungry, I’m tired faces so I always have to ask.

  8. bogart Says:

    Intending no offense, Jessica said it better in her post on mood ogling. I’d link to it; I believe it is still available via the Wayback Machine, but sadly seems flummoxed this morning. It’s worth going to look once you can (warning: Jessica blogged as Cancerbaby as, and until, ovarian cancer took first her fertility and then her life. So while her writing is powerful, there’s no happy ending).

    Since I can’t point you there directly, I’ll provide this link, which is a decent approximation of her point (and has a link to the specific you should plug in to Wayback Machine to find her post).

    Like us, she BTP.

  9. abroad Says:

    Smiling is good for you. Facial muscle use has an effect on mood, which is to say that smiling more is associated with feeling more happy. Also when you smile at people (or otherwise look happy), mirror neurons get used in their brains and they are more likely to smile back at you, and are then more likely to feel happy, and you are more likely to get what you want and/or have a positive outcome to the interaction. Everyone has less stress.

    If women are effectively using these facts, women are smart. If men are too busy being Aggressive and Manly, I feel sorry for them. Given two equally smart people, I am more likely to try to help out the person who is more pleasant to be around, regardless of gender presentation.

    Human beings are social creatures. A large portion of communication is exclusive of words, and occurs via facial expression and body language. We can either ignore that (quite likely to our personal and professional detriment) or work it to our advantage.

    I propose not calling it your “bitch face”. Call it your “nerd face” instead, I think it is more accurate. The face of someone who is more interested in what is going on in hir mind than in communication with hir interlocutor.
    Tangentially relevant:

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I am very well aware of the facial feedback hypothesis and the social benefits of smiling [#2 pipes in: We also took Psych 101]. I JUST DON’T WANT THEM. I am perfectly pleasant when directly interacting with someone. I don’t need to be more happy. At that moment, I need to be more thoughtful, not steal processor cycles from my brain monitoring stupid expectations of stupid people.

    • Practical Parsimony Says:

      And, I took Non-Verbal Communication and other communication courses. If I am considering whether my car is tearing up, if I am low on gas, how to work a math problem, are these cramps going to be the death of me, if I have studied enough, or if I am processing something difficult that I am reading. I really think I would look unbalanced if I smiled all the time. Isn’t there a problem when people smile at inappropriate times? Anytime I call friends, we end up laughing until we are weak. Even my desperately ill friend started laughing. Her husband called out, “Linda, you are making her well.” People have always said I can smile when people are being rude, just let it roll off. I doubt that my personal and professional life ever suffered because I did not have a pleasant disposition.

      One day, I was buying groceries or something. A (friend) person who thinks she is sooooo funny and clever said to me. “Why aren’t you smiling?” I looked at her and continued whatever I was doing while a dozen people sort of looked like they agreed. she loves to ridicule me. “You look like someone died!”

      “Yes, I just found out my mother died. I am leaving for her funeral.” She looked like she did not believe me with her smirk-face. I suppose the continued subdued tone in my voice and the even more miserable look plus the tears welling up convinced her. Everyone was silent as she tried to figure out what to say next. Why is it anyone’s business whether I smile or not if I am not costing them money?

      I really detest the smirk face because people are telling you what they feel and think and they want you to read their disdain. Or, am I misjudging? I think not.

      Don’t psychiatrists have a name for people when their affect is not appropriate for the situation? We all recognize that as aberrant behavior. I have never had a classmate or a student who smiled when thinking hard or studying. I did have a GED student who smiled when she spoke of her father’s sexual abuse for years (age 3-12) and his subsequent prison term after she testified against him. I stopped her and asked her why she smiled. She said she did not want to appear too negative or mean and smiling kept her from crying. I was appalled and assured her it was okay to frown and cry. She did.

      • Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

        I’m sorry. I had a similar experience in a grocery store with checkers trying to get everyone in a holiday mood when my mother died a week before Christmas. They were very embarrassed when I told them, not super-politely, why I was not merry. I really wish people would consider that there may be good reasons for other people not to feel cheerful.

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        I feel it’s not the checkers’ business to monitor my mood. I need a couple of surgeries–spine (serious), shoulder(rotator cuff) and knee (torn meniscus). When I am in pain, I really want to slap their little teen smiley faces that tell me to cheer up. I WAS cheerful until I got orders from girls young enough to be a grandchild! (Grandson is 17)

        Just ring up the damn groceries and put them back in the electric cart instead of pointing to my bag when I ask for it or offering it to my left hand that cannot hold it. Don’t instruct me in how to form my face. Some days I am very lighthearted, in a cheerful mood, thinking about the list in my head while I struggle to get out of the electric cart to do something to the little machine that wants me to sign and punch buttons. Their comments sort of point out to me my shortcomings–the inability to hide horrendous pain and the inability to hold a smile while I think.

        Sometimes, I smile at people I want to rip off head or rip out throat. Sometimes, I smile at ignorance spoken with such genuine belief. Sometimes, I smile an I-cannot-believe-what-you-just-said smile and the person thinks I am being entertained. Sometimes, I smile when I am delivering a blow to the ankles, whipping their feet from under them with a verbal blow. That really confuses people. But, they don’t see my eyes are not smiling.

  10. Cloud Says:

    I have the opposite problem- my “default” face apparently looks very open and inviting, and so all sorts of random people talk to me even when I’m sitting in an airport lounge reading/thinking. I also get stopped and asked for directions A LOT, home and away.

    And yes, I can’t believe we are still fighting about birth control. It is insane.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2 also has that problem with the default face… actually her default face generally involves chewing on something like a pen as if she were 12 years old or looking like she’s in pain (“Are you ok?” people will randomly ask), generally with her hand up against her forehead. No… just thinking…

    • Practical Parsimony Says:

      I am told I am approachable. I am. So, I must have an okay face. Whew, I was worried for a minute. NOT

  11. chacha1 Says:

    I don’t like the term “bitch face.” First because yeah, what *causes* it is generally concentration, not bitchiness. The bitchiest people I know (of both genders) typically make a point of being bitchy with a wide-open smile! But second, because looking grumpy is not unique to females of the species and I really, really dislike female pejoratives.

    My mom, who is tiny and cute, was a teacher right out of college. She told me she deliberately cultivated a frown so that people would take her more seriously! Don’t know how well that worked but she regretted it when the frown line was set for life.

    I started Botox the summer before my wedding. I do not consciously frown, but will frown when reading (or otherwise concentrating, including in dreams), and I didn’t want any unconscious frowning screwing up the wedding pictures (vain much?). I can express displeasure or rage perfectly well without living with a frown line!

    In defense of men … in my industry (law) men are just as subject to appearance- and demeanor-based judgements as women. In a firm full of good-looking and/or friendly people, only other good-looking and/or friendly people get hired. Or promoted. The severely overweight, poorly-groomed, or overly-socially-inept do not advance.

    Love the picture btw. This whole ridiculous mess has me seething.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well then it’s good that in law, as in all other areas, men and women at least get paid equally for equal expectations. OH WAIT!

      I also hate the name “bitch face”. That’s why the phenomenon makes me mad. It implies something about me that is only implied because of my gender. Rrrgh.

      • chacha1 Says:

        “Oh wait!”

        LOL! Yet another reason I opted not to go to law school. Why amplify all the worst aspects of my character in the pursuit of a lifestyle I didn’t admire? … I don’t know a single 100% happy lawyer, except maybe the guy I work most closely with now, who went into law in his 50s after a successful science career. Everyone is stressed and anxious and competitive, and the women I think mostly have given up on the whole “equal” thing, which ALSO has me seething when I stop to think about it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        My aunt and uncle are happy lawyers, but they both work for the government, so that helps with the public service (also good benefits and not so much of the cutthroat spendthrift atmosphere). My aunt has actually been a judge for a couple of decades.

  12. Lindy Mint Says:

    Growing up my mom always forced me to put on a happy face whenever company was around, whether I felt it or not. She was just trying to teach me to be thoughtful of others, but it always felt like I was supposed to put on a show. As a result, I spent many years retraining myself to not be plastic. I think that’s why it doesn’t bother me when someone is gruff or is a hostile thinker, because I know what’s on the inside doesn’t always reflect in one’s face.

  13. jacqjolie Says:

    Is this really a gender thing? This is a common lament on the INTJ forum – that others see you as angry. And most of the INTJ-ers are men.
    Most people say I look happy and am smiling all the time. Maybe that’s true – except when I’m interrupted I bet.

    • Perpetua Says:

      Yes, it really, really is a gendered thing. While it’s possible that men experience this phenomenon from time to time, they do not face it at the same level or the same constancy as women. (And I doubt in most cases that these men are enjoined to SMILE! rather than just being perceived as angry/overly serious.) Women usually get this order from strange men, especially men on the street (or as in the upthread example of the guy working at the gas station). Feminists have been talking about this for years. And sometimes, if a woman fails to comply with the instruction that she smile, the men in question can become angry, even threatening.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Good point– the last thing a person wants to tell an angry man is to smile!

      • jacqjolie Says:

        Ah, ok. It did happen to me once about 20-25 years ago randomly on the street. At the time I thought it was a male dominance thing or alternatively that maybe he was just trying to pick me up / flirt in a lame way.
        I’ve noticed that this happens a lot with my 23 y.o. uber-serious INTJ son and that even *I* do it to him. Interesting.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I was listening to an NPR story this morning about the world’s best sushi chef. He also has a stern face while concentrating. However, he is recorded additional respect for having that face (the story makes this point).

  14. MutantSupermodel Says:

    That lady in the picture is my god damn hero. I am SO fed up with whatever the f*ck is going on in this country right now. I’m flabbergasted frankly. How is this bullshit even an issue today? I don’t f*cking get it and I’m so freaking irate over it. You know I really try and be all happy and loving but I am seriously getting sick of white dudes.

  15. arc Says:

    I love her sign – seriously.

    I had never heard the term “bitch face” – yuck. I’m always getting told at work (esp in perf reviews) that I’m not very good at hiding what I’m thinking – that in a meeting if I’m thinking something is ridiculous, it’s all over my face ;) I haven’t made any special effort to fix that.

    I also think the “always smiling” thing might be culturally American. I can’t remember who told me this, but someone who was from Europe said she had a hard time getting used to strangers smiling at her all the time (and the random friendly small talk at stores, etc.). IIRC, I noticed this in Germany, too – there’s a lot less smiling and fake friendliness there.

    • arc Says:

      and hey why is your blog asking me to log into wordpress when i use my usual email address? It just started doing that :(

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Weird… people were always smiling at us when we were in Germany, particularly at DC (who, it is true, is especially adorable, also there weren’t a whole lot of kids around). East coast US is the least friendly place I’ve been.

      • Practical Parsimony Says:

        I was walking with my then 2.5-yr-old grandson in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Men standing in shop doors, men sitting on benches, men walking by–lots of men, came out and spoke to my grandson as he was running and I was chasing him down. It was sort of unnerving because I thought they were all flirting with me. Later, I found out that it was the Italian, macho preference for boys. Of course, he had a huge smile as he taunted me and I was scowling!

  16. Revanche Says:

    * My comment from yesterday except WP wouldn’t let me comment **anywhere** and I had to try and work some WP magic.

    1. PiC totally has that face.
    2. The rudest ones get reminded that the times I’m smiling widest are when I’m about to eat you alive, so do you really want me smiling?
    3. Growing up, I wore a “perpetual scowl”, ie: my natural relaxed non-smiling face, and every time an adult told me to smile I wanted to kick them in the shins. I actually had an uncle physically threaten me because he disliked my expression. I still hate him to this day.
    4. I’m pretty expressively reactive and as it turns out, yes, I have a less than open expression unless I’m laughing. (I like having about two modes: mockery [fun] or thinking.)
    My boss can’t ever read my face so he’s always reacting to my various expressions. He’s slowly learning by, surprise! asking!: “….so… much trouble am I in?”
    He’s not too polite to call it what he thinks it is, so apparently he thinks my “what the …what??” face is “You are DEAD. MEAT. MISTER.” And my thinking face is the “I think you’re wrong” face. This is what I discover when he narrates for phone conferences. Eventually he’ll get it right.

  17. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I am sorry to be commenting so often, but…………
    I read of a study, don’t know the name. When person has a neutral expression, it is perceived as negative. So, maybe our neutral faces are being assigned a pejorative meaning. Possible?

    When I administered the Woodcock Johnson Reading Assessent/Test of Achievement and PPVT (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test), the group in training was told to have a neutral face. These children were in Headstart to 3rd grade. A few of us worried aloud that white people working in inner city school that were about 99.9% black would be difficult enough for the students. But, our neutral face might not be friendly. So, we were told to keep the same smile during the testing portion and not look happier or sad or more concerned if the student was doing well or not. These tests were oral and had to be administered by a tester. Most were oral, even the math.

    PPVT is an oral test of receptive vocabulary. We were face-to-face with students. Neutral expressions on our faces would have negatively impacted achievement on these tests and reinforced stereotypes of white people.

    Okay, I won’t post so often. And, I just might break that promise.

  18. ecogeofemme Says:

    I can totally relate to this. People will say, “it can’t be that bad” when they see me walking down the hall in thought. It’s very annoying. Nice to know it’s not just me.

    I also tend to have this problem with email. I prefer to-the-point messages, but people kept asking if I was mad at them. I started using exclamation points and emoticons to show breeziness and it seems to have helped. Too bad my emails are now filled with stupid emoticons and exclamation points.

    • Practical Parsimony Says:

      About emails…I know a woman who seems to be super-nice, an email acquaintance on a group. People get offended by her writing style and think she is mean, angry, bossy. She presents factual information very harshly. I take a breath and read it again, differently in my head. I still feel like I have been battered, but I deflect it well, knowing it is her style. Because people misunderstand my intent, also, I have bunches of silly “lols” and other things to try and lighten the tone. NO emoticons. I hate those.

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        You have no idea how many people I have pissed off because of being blunt in email or on Facebook. People, even those who know me in person, say that I am mean or harsh or what have you. I had no idea I came across that way, but people who are supposedly thick-skinned have gotten very POed at me. Some days, I feel like I shouldn’t bother with writing at all…

  19. Extreme Patriarchy-Induced Rage (now decaf!) « Grumpy rumblings of the half-tenured Says:

    […] in the dept hate me and they’re not retiring #2: nobody could hate you   maybe they have bitch faces  #1: wrong. they are crazy mad insane people and they hate me because of no reason. But they do. […]

  20. karifur Says:

    OMG YES I totally have a bitch face. My son too has figured out that the angry face really just means that I’m concentrating on something; usually some sort of task involving small motor skills.. It’s not the same as my thinking face, which is sort of absent & vacant looking.
    The concentration face is frowny and scowly, which is sometimes rather off-putting. So glad I’m not the only one!

  21. femmefrugality Says:

    I don’t know how I missed this before. It’s genius. I’m glad I’m not the only one that has a bitch face. Apparently a lot of people think I hate them. I don’t. I’m just lost in my own head. Which apparently has a very angry face.

  22. lornamurphy Says:

    I have always had this problem and it really irritates me… But I have to say, as well as innumerable men commenting on it (my dad, men in the street, bosses, colleagues), three female bosses have too. I have also had friends tell me they were intimidated by my ‘bitch face’ before they got to know me, but only men and bosses felt it appropriate to try to correct or challenge.

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