When I turned 50, one of the thoughts I had was like hell will I ever write anything for Huff/Post50. And that right there is the problem. I'm finally over it.
I'm over it because it's time to walk the walk. I write a lot about the intersection of misogyny and ageism -- that special bias that starts affecting women in the prime of their lives. I like to imagine I am immune to any assault on my own self-esteem, even though I know the Third-Person Effect is very real and I have no unique super powers that allow me to remain psychologically untouched by media. Right now I am struggling with how my face looks at rest. You may know it as Bitchy Resting Face, and I've come to call it BRFS, like it's a syndrome.
Here's how it works.
People say to me "you look...." and comment about an assumed emotion when what they are actually doing is responding to the way my face is aging. I have forehead lines, nasolabial folds, and dark under-eye circles. My reading glasses often slide down my nose, giving me that judgmental schoolmarm look. But I'm not really tired or unhappy or judgy all the time. Mostly I'm just neutral, content, doing whatever I'm doing.
The comments can be ridiculous, like the time I was standing outside a restaurant waiting for a cab and a stranger said, "You must not have enjoyed your meal." "What?" I asked, incredulous. The stranger explained, "Oh, you look upset, like you didn't like the restaurant or had a bad meal." I'd had a lovely meal, thank you very much! Oh, right, my face. That again. That again.
These comments make me self-monitor for smiling, for "showing interest" when others are talking, for not letting my face relax. It's exhausting in the most private way. Is this a thing? I never comment on people's subtle facial expressions when their face is at rest.
If someone rolls their eyes, for example, that seems to be a clear signal of mood or opinion. I can "pick up social cues." I'm not on the spectrum. I understand that people have subtle facial expressions, and that it is adaptive for other people to pick up on them. I'm not excusing myself from having my nonverbal social behavior observed by others, or from observing it in others. I'm questioning why, as I've gotten older, it happens to me more often, and is more often incorrectly assessed.
I'm also wondering how I should respond when it happens. I feel frustrated, but I usually just smile as broadly as I can -- it stretches out those nasolabial folds and makes happy crinkles beside my eyes.
Often people think I am just bored silly. I protest, "Oh no, I'm listening!" or "Oh no, I'm just fine!" It makes the other person feel better. I want the other person to feel better because apparently my face has made them uneasy, unsure of themselves, unconfident in the interesting nature of what they are saying to me. Why must my face sabotage me like this?
Sometimes I fantasize about wearing a mask. The mask is always smiling or at least not scowling, and behind it I can just let my facial muscles relax into whatever sour or bored expression they must naturally fall into at my advanced age of 51. The person talking to me would feel duly appreciated, and at the same time, I could work less hard on my appearance and just think about what the person is saying or what I want to add to the conversation. If I don't have to monitor my facial expression as an intentional action in my prefrontal cortex, it would free me up more for just actually thinking and being.
I've discussed this with a few friends who express great surprise that I have any focus at all on my physical appearance given that I write so much about the beauty myth and how important it is for mothers not to reinforce society's message to girls that their looks are the most important thing about them. People say, "But you're so smart! So talented! Why does this bother you?" Maybe it bothers me because I'm a hypocrite, but beyond that, it bothers me because I am female and I live and write within -- not outside -- the context of our culture. And our culture is not kind to women over 50. At least I've aged out of being told to smile on the subway or while walking down the street, but this is a brave new world.
So I'm curious. When it comes to BRFS, does this happen to other women? Does it also happen to men? Please let me know in the comments!
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of the new book Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.