As I get older my resting bitch face rests easier. For one thing, COVID masks allow me to go about with a giddy freedom where I don’t have to worry about my mood, face, lack of interest, or immersion in my own thoughts being an affront to anyone. I can relax into whatever face I want, without the exhausting mandate to freeze my face into the pleasant mask expected of women. While mask-wearing makes it easy to wear whatever expression I want, including none, even before COVID I found that I’d aged into a protected class: females who no longer owed anyone a sweet expression.
For most of my life I worked on a neutral face so that I wouldn’t look mean or unappealing. (I’m not sure which I thought was worse.) When I was younger, having a man tell me to smile was almost a daily occurrence. Feeling I didn’t owe random men on the streets or subways my cheer, I never followed their instructions. One time, fed up with having a stranger tell me to “put on a happy face”, in a melancholy tone I told him my mother had just died of cancer. “Fuck you, bitch!” was his retort. In the last 20 years, whenever I tell this story to men, they almost always ask, “Do you think he knew you were lying about your mother?” They never seem to get how very, VERY beside the point this is. What matters is, dead mother or no dead mother, I did not owe this man a smile. If he didn’t find this passerby’s face at rest jolly enough for his taste, that was his problem, not mine. What men who listened to my anecdote seemed to ignore was the fact that I didn’t owe him, or anyone on the street, a good mood. I didn’t owe him pretty. What he owed me was to not tell me how to look, how to please him, how to feel. Yet like so many men, he felt entitled. Like men who constantly commented on my general appearance, specific body parts, what they would like to do with and/or to my various body parts, men who tried to cajole me into smiling felt they were entitled. My existence was there for their entertainment. Comments, whether they were derisive or masquerading as compliments, were all there to remind me I was less than.
After 40, and especially after 50, men no longer seem to feel entitled to my being an easy-going ingenue. My resting bitch face can actually get bitchier. It seems a given that I might not feel delighted all the time, and this is OK with construction workers and business boys coming out of bars. I’m off their binary fuckable radar. All I know is one day I noticed I was no longer being told to smile anymore. There are two piles and I’d somehow moved from one to the other. I wasn’t invisible, I was just no longer, uh, germane. Is this why older women get tagged with hag? Is this why older women were once labeled as crones once they passed the menopausal Rubicon? Hardly the warty witch who hands Snow White the poisoned apple, I’ve just aged out of the “Hey baby” category. I don’t feel sad or ignored, I feel free.
All these external smile police gave me my own internalized overseer. Once I was briefly constrained to a wheelchair, with my husband pushing me around for a few weeks. I fretted over getting just the right “wheelchair face”. The face couldn’t be my resting bitch face, lest I look grumpy and ungrateful as I just sat there being wheeled about. But I couldn’t look too jolly, or else I’d look like one of those annoying Pollyannas who doesn’t let being infirm get her down. I felt I had to calibrate my face just right…and it was exhausting. To this day I beg off attending events by telling my husband, “No, I can’t go. I just can NOT do wheelchair face that long.” Do men worry about what their silent faces are saying? I’m guessing most do not.
Anyway, hopefully the new era means today’s Snow Whites have fewer smile bullies; I hope so. Meanwhile, with or without masks, I’m going to revel in letting my face relax into bitch face whenever I want. Aaaah.
Dixie Laite has been a second-grade teacher and mechanical bull operator, and for the past 25 years she’s worked for a variety of TV networks as a writer, editorial director, trainer, advice columnist, even an on-air personality. But primarily she’s trotted around New York City in one cowboy shirt or another, lurking around flea markets, gyms, and anywhere they’ll hand her French toast. Currently she lounges around her apartment with one husband, one dog, five parrots, and roughly 2,000 pairs of shoes. Dixie is the main lady behind Age Against the Machine, a column about empowering women over 50. Sign up for the Jumble & Flowdown newsletter to stay in the know about Dixie’s latest columns.
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