My name is Lesley and I Have A RBF or Resting Bitch Face

Who knew there is such a thing as Resting Bitch Face or RBF? I didn’t till I read Jessica Bennett’s article in the NYT last week.

Apparently a RBF is

“a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless. It’s the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something — or perhaps when they’re not thinking at all.”

Its a bitch face because women are expected to smile and be happy all the time so any deviation from this expectation is questioned. I was born with a RBF. See that frown?  That downward curl at one corner? That sneer?

Me, 2 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)
Me, 2 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Maybe its a Russian thing. Russians don’t smile a lot (unless they had a lot of vodka). Russians believe people that smile too much are retards or simpletons. Genetic selection in Russia favoured the curled down mouth.  Perhaps it came with a romantic melancholy nature too, who knows.

Me 10 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)
Me 10 years old (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Anyway,  I didn’t smile much when I was younger. And truth be told I didn’t have a lot to smile about okay. I was as angry as the Mad Hatter.  I was angry my father brought me to Nigeria, I was angry he took me from my Mother. I hated Nigeria, I hated the boarding school with no running water and sadistic teachers and seniors. I hated the university on the outskirts of a crass muddy mercantile Igbo township. I hated the natives and their superstitious beliefs and endless meaningless pointless feuds. I hated Lagos with its traffic jams, its garbage strewn streets and its smelly lagoon.  And then my Mother died before I could see her again. I was really angry.

Me at 18 years (Copyright Lesley Agams)
Me at 18 years (Copyright Lesley Agams)

Strangers used to tell me to smile more, mostly men of course, and older women.

“You will look prettier when you smile”

As if I existed to look pretty for them.

(Here Warsan Shire’s words reverberate “It’s not my responsibility to be beautiful. I’m not alive for that purpose. My existence is not about how desirable you find me.”)

Boning boning even at my call to the Nigerian Bar in 1990. I was 24 (Copyright Lesley Agams)
Boning boning even at my call to the Nigerian Bar in 1990. I was 24
(Copyright Lesley Agams)

Merchant Bank of Africa sent me on a training course back in 1990 or something. I didn’t break a smile throughout the three day course. Hey, back then who ever I smiled at seemed to think it was a come on anyway so why smile at strangers and give them the undeserved opportunity to become a nuisance?

At the end of the course one of the male participants wrote me a lengthy letter (that was before personal computers) about how I should smile more that it would attract more people to me. As if I wanted to attract him. Or more people! (And for the avoidance of doubt I smile when I want to attract someone. You will know.)

I identified with the 19 year old quoted in Jessica’s article –

“It doesn’t make me feel like I’m unhappy, un-fun or unpleasant,” said Noelle Wyman, 19, a junior at Columbia. “My RBF makes me feel serious, pensive and reserved, like someone who only engages those who deserve it.”

Anyway at some point I let go of all that anger, I still had a RBF but I started to smile more. I realised that the RBF doesn’t look so good when you are older. I mean, look at Ben Murray Bruce. He’s got some serious bitch face but he’s a guy so no one calls him that. He looks pained when he smiles! And then compare him to Barrack Obama.

I’m not angry anymore and I smile a lot more than I used to. Smiling is good business. But its also good aesthetics.  I’m vain like that. I’ve cultivated a neutral professional smile. It entails curling my lips upwards. I look better in pictures and selfies. Sometimes I let it reach my eyes. Sometimes its even a genuine and spontaneous reaction to a moment of joy.

A rare smile in my 20's. learning to smile win my 30s and smiling through my 40s (Copyright Lesley Agams)
A rare smile in my 20’s. learning to smile in my 30s and smiling through my 40s (Copyright Lesley Agams)

I’m not saying everyone with an RBF is angry. Or Russian. Or melancholy. Just that I was all three.

You can still catch my RBF when I’m concentrating on something. Look, my son caught me working on something.

Copyright Adindu O
Copyright Adindu O

Meanwhile almost a decade later and long after I had forgotten the incident and with the advent of internet the letter writing guy writes an email. Yeah. He’s a writing kind of guy. He writes another long rambling missive except this time he is begging me to forgive him for his earlier letter. Which I never responded to anyway.

It actually takes me a minute to remember. I’m like, seriously? You been carrying that guilt around all these years? I feel like the Pope giving a benediction when I write back and tell him all is forgiven and forgotten.

“Go and sin no more my son.”

I expect he will write me back asking for a boon but I never hear from him again. I’m kinda surprised. He is for real? Wow. There are still people like that in the world? Awesome.

I know the pressure is on women to smile and be pleasant all the time, and women are very good at smiling and being pleasant in the most disturbing circumstances. An RBF can be an asset, it says, don’t mess with me, don’t talk to me, don’t come near me and hell no do not tell me to smile!

If someone says you have an RBF take it as a compliment, only smile when you genuinely feel like it. Like when you’re taking pictures and selfies. Or see something else you love.


7 thoughts on “My name is Lesley and I Have A RBF or Resting Bitch Face

  1. Omg i laughed so hard after read this at 5am in the morning. So i guess this is the face everyone says i have got. I cant help it. Someone once said to me “your face makes you seem wicked”. Oh well i guess he didnt know what words to use in describing the facial expression. But this face right here has helped keep nuisance making people away from me so i only actually smile when i want people to feel at ease around me and be able to approach me.

  2. I do have a RBF too! I asked a guy once how I came Across if he didn’t know me. He said ‘this one.. If you don’t have anything serious or u lack balls better not talk to her’. On the upside, it helps me sieve out frivolous people and petty small talk. On the downside, I’ve been told I come across as snobby. That always gets me laughing(on the inside, of course! Tsk) I have a thousand and one emotions & thoughts going through my head at any given time, if I should emote it all on my face, I’d be a clown or just look mad.
    Great post as always,
    Your faithful Lurker.

  3. Ok. Is it what it is called, RBF? Thanks for sharing the knowledge. But I’m still not completely satisfied with that description. That face of yours in that picture together with your dad. He had the same type of face as well. The image got stuck on my mind. Hard as I tried, I never managed to define or explain it. For weeks the image kept popping up on my mind. I liked your style of writing too and I decided to register in MzAgams. Then I started stumbling into your life story, the difficult relationship with your dad, the trauma of being ‘kidnapped’ by the one you loved so much, the ambivalence you felt. You fought back bravely and overcame all challenges. Could it be that you and your dad were having exactly the same feeling at the same time? Who took that picture? Both of you knew a picture was being taken and yet no facial expression of any type of feeling. I think you were too young for RBF in that picture.
    I shall continue to read your posts and if you would write a book just like Chimamanda, I shall buy a copy.

  4. A delightful read. I should add that to a story lol. But I like you with or without a smile anyway. The Warsan Shire poem was apt.

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