Resting Bitch Face, or RBF for short, is an increasingly rife cultural advent describing a facial expression, or lack thereof, conveying a particular mix of irritation, judgment, or boredom. One journalist wrote of her own face:
“Essentially, someone displaying RBF might not be the kind of person you’d be inclined to ask for directions.”
As a psychologist, I became interested in the phenomenon when several clients cited RBF as the cause of symptoms. For example, Paolo* a 20-something gay man who’d long suffered depression and low self-esteem, said:
“I’m told all the time something about my face looks unapproachable. People judge me off the bat, thinking I’m judging them.”
I liked Paolo, but he was convinced this aspect of him caused the friendship dramas he often encountered. Worse, he believed these judgments were insurmountable, saying, “I can’t very well get a face transplant,” contributing to his helplessness.
In 2016, researchers studied the phenomenon using software that detects micro-emotions and found neutral faces identified as having RBF showed four times more contempt than other, genuinely neutral, faces. This showed as a subtle raising of lip corners and tightening around the eyes, which researchers concluded must similarly be registered by the brain. They suggested future research should examine why some people have RBF, what it means in terms of a person’s psychology, and why people react so badly to it.
In particular, it’s unclear whether contemporary RBF reflects an accurate perception of undue passive aggression or simply unfair judgements of people whose face we take issue with.
Indeed, sufferers themselves don’t experience feeling contemptuous, and some quick Googling reveals most self-identified RBF-ers plead innocent, asking for a reprieve.
It can also be argued that increased rates of RBF among women indicate the phenomenon is more likely a learned artifact of social norms than anything depicting a true underlying emotional state.
Much evidence suggests there’s more expectation for women to get along with others, and as a woman I definitely notice the pressure to constantly smile. It makes others uncomfortable when you don’t. And I feel resentful toward this ― faking a smile takes effort and makes me feel disingenuous.
However, as tempting as a free pass from smile duty may sound, we shouldn’t petition to free the bitch-face-ees or mount a pro-poker-face movement just yet. While artificial smiling is a learned habit, spontaneous smiling is an essential biological reflex we share with babies and other primates that engages a different set of facial muscles to faking with an important psychological function.
A major discovery informing psychological practice in recent years is Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which explains our nervous system has three hierarchical defensive systems. Down the phylogenetic tree, animals rely solely on “fight, flight, or freeze,” but during our evolution, the Social Engagement System (SES) took over as the most adaptive means for responding to threat.
The SES is regulated by the vagal brake, a nerve that runs from the brain and relays information throughout the body. It detects cues from others’ voice and expression to establish it’s okay to put the brakes on a fight-or-flight response to stress, because we have support, blocking cortisol and releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that put the body into a state of relaxation and restoration.
If you’ve ever had someone not smile back at you, you’ve experienced what it’s like when your vagal break goes offline and primitive stress reactions kick in. You either start wondering if you’ve done something wrong, marvel at their rudeness, or withdraw, deciding it’s all just a little too hard. This is why people have such beef with RBF.
I can hear bitch face enthusiasts rallying as I type. “Harden up,” they might say, “I’m no one’s walking-talking valium.”
I’m sympathetic to this; time and opportunities are too often wasted for fear of offending. However, making pleasing facial expressions isn’t just about placating others’ tender egos. The vagus activates through feedback it receives from the muscles of the face, head, ear, and throat, meaning for our own vagal brake to function, our face needs to be moving.
During a healthy exchange, mirror neurons enable us to feel what another feels by simulating it in our own body. Cues like rhythmic voice and positive facial affect create a positive feedback loop, and through a process called neuroception, the body literally thinks, “I’m smiling, so I must be safe,” and the positive visceral response of the SES is activated.
If our face isn’t inclined toward putting the old gym gear on, we lose tone in muscles of the middle ear and throat (leading to poor voice intonation and recognition), and face (creating a flat, unresponsive, mean-looking appearance). This reduces our ability to connect with others and experience positive emotions.
Accordingly, micro-expressions of contempt likely arise from people in our face we just can’t read or enjoy. In line with this, many personal accounts of RBF describe it as a feature of social anxiety.
People suffering psychiatric disorders often have SES impairments, though facial muscles can be out of practice from varying degrees of trauma, neglect, or having a depressed or anxious parent. The internet culture of screen-to-screen interactions is also a likely culprit for the RBF epidemic. And don’t get me started on Botox.
But fear not: like any muscle, the SES can be toned. And unlike false promises of triceps or glutes, developing a hardworking face may actually elicit the positive emotions and favorable reaction from others you desire. In fact, renowned psychiatrist Bessel Van De Kolk suggested the best treatment for many depressed or anxious people would be acting classes, for this reason.
Anything that exercises the head, throat, or ears will increase vagal tone. Pranayama yoga, OM chanting, and playing wind or rhythmic instruments are great regular activities.
To target RBF, practice relaxing the eyes and mouth. Front and back jaw movements, not necessary for chewing, are specifically social. Practice gently gliding your jaw forwards and backward, slowly increasing speed and fluidity of the movement.
This helped Paolo better activate a neuroception of safety in interactions, which eliminated both concerns about RBF and the defensive cutting remarks he had a habit of making in the name of humor, of which he was previously not conscious, and were likely the primary cause of friendship dramas affecting his self-esteem.
If you’re wondering where you sit on the RBF scale, the company behind the FaceReader software have invited people to upload a photo and “Test If I Have Resting Bitch Face.”
* Names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Kim can be contacted at nookpsychology.com.