Recently, while minding my own business at a social event, a guy who I did not know approached me to inform me that I had a “bitch face.” This is not the first time this has happened. Actually, it tends to happen frequently enough for it to be a joke among my social circle, and especially when I’m not actively smiling. (A “condition” known to many as resting bitchface syndrome or chronic bitch face.)
Depending on context, tone, and probably how tolerant of a stranger’s random comments I want to be on the day, I respond to such accusation of having a bitch face with a nonchalant, “Well, that’s just my face.” Sometimes I smile (sarcastically) and ask, “Happy now?” Sometimes I smile genuinely and say, “It’s to scare away superficial people.” This time, I humorously told the guy, “Clearly, it wasn’t bitchy enough because you still came up to talk to me.” He laughed, and before long, we were in a deep conversation about the dynamics of demeanor and presentation of self.
Today, there are more than enough think pieces on the Internet explaining in particular to men, why they should refrain from telling women to smile, “be approachable,” and whatever other adjectives are the antithesis to bitchy and unapproachable. There has even been a social art project, “Stop Telling Women To Smile” which addresses street harassment of women.
To some, such conversations are minor and are of little significance in a world with many big problems. But it all feeds into a much larger systemic problem of sexism and the unrelenting patriarchal nature of many societies. Think of it as an everyday side effect of gendered perceptions and social inequalities that are sometimes passive and merely annoying, and sometimes active and potentially dangerous.
Thus, as a woman who according to some people (especially but not exclusively men), has this supposedly unapproachable demeanor, but then later is often deemed quite friendly or warm or affectionate after-the-fact, I’d like to share some of the everyday struggles faced:
1. People automatically assume that you’re a hostile or cold person and because of that assumption, might treat you in a hostile manner. Which of course might have the outcome of you responding in the manner in which you were treated, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When in reality you would otherwise not have treated them in such a manner, had they not approached you in a combative way to start. Talk about inception.
2. Your “minor” public/street harassment can go from 0 to 60 really fast. Because you already have an unapproachable demeanor, you will likely be told to cheer up (a lot). Not wanting to escalate the situation (and likely wanting to not give any inviting impression whatsoever in this situation), you will ignore it. The combination of seemingly actively ignoring harassment, as well as already having an uninviting demeanor, can lead to an especially negative, hostile reaction.
3. If you like someone in a platonic or romantic manner, you will have to go out of your way to make that known. People are often surprised that you liked them at all in the first place, because their initial impression of you is of someone who did not remotely want to engage with them at all. Or they overlook(ed) you entirely because of your deceptively unfriendly demeanor.
4. It takes a while for people to grasp your sense of humor. People initially can’t tell the difference between your jokes and your candid observations. So you might often be hesitant to showcase your sense of humor around people when you first meet them. This of course has the effect of making you seem even more intimidating to people.
5. You have to go out of your way when it comes to people who work in any sort of customer service. You’ve learned the hard way that unless you give off extremely positive vibes to people in service professions, you’re not going to get very far with them. And without going the extra mile, you know you’re going to be seen as the disgruntled customer even if you’re not in any way shape or form being uncooperative.
6. People can be callous about how they treat you because they view you as emotionally distant or incapable of being hurt. While your close friends know this to be untrue, other people can sort of see you as someone whose temperament and feelings are unimportant. Even when you are an emotionally strong person, you don’t appreciate the lack of respect directed at you under the guise of “being able to take it.”
7. You hate to admit it but you worry if your demeanor may be holding you back in any and all areas of your life. More than anything, you wish people knew that having a stoic appearance doesn’t preclude you from the same fears and desires everyone else has as they go about their life from day-to-day – it just precludes you from looking like it.