The author, when asked to smile for a photo
I was a pretty serious kid. Teachers used to call me a "thinker," which was fine until around the time I turned 19. That was when what I considered to be my neutral expression got a new name: Resting Bitch Face (RBF).
If you haven't heard of RBF before, here's a quick explainer from the internet's best friend UrbanDictionary: "A condition that affects 1 in 6 people meaning that their 'zoned out face' is in a constant state of bitchiness e.g. 'Claire Horn has resting bitch face!!'"
Yes, Claire Horn does have Resting Bitch Face, and so do I. If you want to get into specifics, my particular form of RBF has been described as "perpetually unimpressed" or "about to sneeze."
I'm not going to lie. It's been a rough couple of years. At least I haven't been alone, though. Victoria Beckham, Kristen Stewart, Kanye—we've all lived through this together. VB and KStew exhibit the most common type of RBF: "lemon mouth angry school principal." Kanye, one of the few widely cited male RBFers, is afflicted by a rarer form dubbed, "Son, I expected more of you."
Kristen Stewart's face. Image via YouTube
RBF is frustrating to live with but finally science has brought some answers. Last year, two behavioral researchers, Jason Rogers and Abbe Macbeth, used a technology called FaceReader to determine whether RBF is actually a thing, or just a delusion in the eye of the beholder. FaceReader scans more than 500 points on the human face and assigns an expression based on eight "basic" emotions: happy, angry, sad, scared, surprised, disgusted, contemptuous, or neutral.
To create a baseline, Rogers and Macbeth ran "normal" faces through FaceReader and found that most people's resting faces register as "neutral." Then they ran photos and videos of celebrities most often accused of RBF—Kanye, KStew, etc. What the pair found is that these faces registered far higher "contempt" than the normies. That sneering, condescending emotion accounts for around 5.76 percent of the resting expression for those afflicted with RBF.
Kanye West's face being analyzed. Image via Noldus
This doesn't sound great but there's still hope. "This is a fundamental and key point," Rogers and Macbeth note in a paper about their work. "FaceReader is not detecting enough contempt to reflect true contempt... It just looks like contempt to the viewer." As they explain, the human brain is hardwired to comb other people's faces for emotional cues and so even tiny differences can make an impression. "Because contempt is based upon elements of comparison and judgment, viewing this in someone's face creates a feeling of uneasiness, or uncomfortableness, for the person viewing that face," they explain.
So there it is—science says Resting Bitch Face is your problem, not mine. However, having the self esteem of someone who's been teased most of her adult life about her RBF, my main takeaway from this research is that looking at my face makes people uneasy and uncomfortable.
This research did give us a number though: 5.67 percent. This is the line where RBF begins. If the percentage of contempt in your expression falls below this threshold, you're in the clear. What if I'd been unfairly grouped in with those discomfort-inducing sneerers for all these years? All I needed was a contempt score below 5.67 percent. To find out, I got myself a copy of FaceReader to run some experiments.
By run some experiments, I mean that I wasted the next few hours of my life trying to take a selfie that was totally blank—it's impossible. We've been conditioned to pull some sort of expression whenever a camera is pointed in our faces. In some photos my eyes were too narrow; in others what I thought was a subtle smile came out as a full-blown sneer. It seems I have absolutely no control over my face.
My face being analyzed by FaceReader
I finally gave up on attaining expressionless perfection and just put a photo into FaceReader. It did some Minority Report biometric shit and spat out some graphs with all the answers I was looking for.
So the good news is the computer knows I'm lady, and it doesn't think I have a beard or a mustache. The gray bar in the chart is neutral, which is the clearly the dominant emotion in my expression. There's also some happiness in there, maybe some faint hope that FaceReader could give me the all clear from RBF.
But then there was the bad news: My contempt is pretty much off the charts. It's way above the RBF threshold. I'm even worse than Kanye. Kanye freaking West, the guy so famously grouchy there are memes about it. Kanye West, who didn't even crack a smile when Amy Schumer threw herself at his feet on the red carpet.
So I guess science has confirmed that I have RBF. I'm not really sure how to feel about it, but I probably look pretty angry.
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