At this point, most of us are aware of the conversation around Bitchy Resting Face. Thanks to last May’s hilarious fake PSA, we have a name for the condition that affects millions of women, i.e. not smiling when their face is at rest. For some, bitchy resting face is a defense against objectification. For others, a more aggressive facial expression commands respect at the office. And for lots of ladies, a downturned mouth and furrowed brow is simply where their features settle when reading a book. The fact that women who dare to go around with a face that is anything but an open invitation to chat are worthy of an Urban Dictionary reference is part of a larger conversation about the pressure for women to seem likable, street harassment, gendered behavioral expectations, and catcalled demands to smile. Bitchy resting face can be powerful, so it pains me that I have to write this essay.
Because today, we are talking about another, lesser known phenomenon: Midwest Pleasant Face. Midwest pleasant face is cool bitchy resting face’s blonde, sundress wearing cousin who you always worry is going to get kidnapped. While my girlfriends head out into the world with the natural defense of a countenance that looks like they just came face to face with a naked Dick Cheney, my default facial setting ranges from “vaguely amused” to “just got a free cupcake.”
I self identify as an angry feminist, but I was born and bred into this sweet expression. I am from a small town where you say a pleasant “hi” to the grocery store clerk, pharmacist, handyman, and any other practical stranger you come into contact with. Not introducing yourself with a smile is rude. Bitchy resting face-ers have Kristen Stewart, but our poster child is the effervescent Rachel McAdams. She always looks like she’s having a good time, totally interested in what you have to say, perhaps on the verge of giggling at some unheard joke.
I first became aware of the hazardous effects of my kindly welcoming visage on a train platform in Paris. I arrived in the city of lights around 10 pm on a snowy December evening, alone, probably wearing some practical combination of oversized sweater and boots with knee socks and no pants. Upon seeing a homeless guy, shabbily dressed in three parkas and covered in matted facial hair, I blessed him with my “no way in hell am I pulling out my wallet on this train platform, but I see you as a human being and hope you have a lovely evening” smile.
At which point he bolted toward me, yelling something in a language that was not French, and lurched so close to my face that I could feel his liquored up breath on my skin and took off at a near run to the far end of the platform. Notably, the three nicely dressed French gentlemen around did precisely nothing while this terrified twenty-one-year-old female bolted for the next car.
This was the most harrowing (so far) of my midwest pleasant face experiences, but certainly not the first or last. At other times, I have been engaged in conversation by the sixty-something Walgreen’s clerk about my choice of prophylactics (he preferred the green box, I chose the purple), questioned about salsa at 9 am in a Wal-Mart, and treated to unprompted stories about everything from married teen fatherhood to one of the most charming pre-war romances I’ve ever heard everywhere from waiting rooms to on the clock at my last boutique job. Most recently, I agreed to let a tweaker borrow my iPhone 5 on a snowy street corner in Colorado after her boyfriend dumped her at a Denny’s (it was Christmas!).
My personal midwest pleasant face is made worse by a small stature and big eyes. I look friendly. I am friendly, and I generally assume people around me to be the same. Which could be why a fair amount of my friends expressed concerns about me living in a large city. You are not supposed to make casual eye contact with strangers on the train, but some mannerly habits die hard.
Midwest pleasant face does invite a fair amount of unwelcome attention, but giving people the benefit of the doubt has its perks. Basically, if you don’t get abducted, it’s a great way to make friends. On my second weekend in the city, I followed two guys I met on the subway across town to the “best doughnuts in NY.” I figured legendary pastry was totally worth whatever the small risk inherent to public transportation in broad daylight. And it was.
I imagine that the bitchy resting face crew would look mildly insane if forced to smile all day long. Likewise, it is simply against my nature to plaster on a mean mug just because I moved. Keeping my face neutral-to-negative just doesn’t come easily to me. I prefer the “speak softly and carry a big stick approach.” I may be smiley, but I didn’t hesitate to call out the first guy to grab my ass on the subway steps so loudly that he turned back, looking halfway apologetic. Smiley doesn’t mean stupid any more than a serious expression makes a girl a bitch, and every woman should be able to present herself to the world however she damn well pleases. Smiles included.