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That Look
That Look

Lauren Rheaume

I inherited it from my mother.

She had a stare that cut into me and a booming voice to match. She used this look with her elementary school students, with my brothers and me, even with the cats. It was an expression that said, “Don’t. You. Dare.”

I studied this look, cultivated my own, practiced it in the mirror. I was trying to achieve that perfect, paradoxical mix of expressionlessness and intensity—every part of my face was still, as my eyes tried to bore holes into my targets. My mother’s was a withering glare, meant to freeze us in place and reconsider whatever mess we were making. But unlike her, I rarely placed eye contact on the objects of my intention. My look was a deflector: I wore it in the halls at school, and now I wear it at night, while I’m out running, and often when I pass men on the street, even in the light of day.

But wearing the look can backfire. It invites bold commentators—always men. You should smile. Give me a smile. Women everywhere have heard some version of this. It’s like we owe it to them: our faces, our selves.

***

Despite the inner fire I’d nurtured from a young age, I was always a quiet, conscientious student. I wanted to be good and do well, but under the surface I was also trying to uncover and harness my power. In junior year of high school, in 2003, I was enrolled in a required course vaguely called “Computers.” I dreaded it because technology didn’t come naturally to me and I didn’t know anyone in the class, but I dreaded it most of all because of the teacher, Mr. L. On the first day of class, Mr. L called out our names and not only pronounced my surname correctly, which was rare, but he also added a little extra French flair.

He turned to me and asked, “Do you know Manon Rheaume?”

I did not.

Later that day he called me over to his desk, having pulled up a picture of the female French-Canadian hockey player on his computer.

I hovered an appropriate distance away from him, about two feet, and leaned down a bit to squint at the image. “Cool,” I said. I frowned and nodded to show mild interest and returned to my seat. At the time I interpreted it not just as an overfamiliarity but an invasion, like he was saying he not only knew me but knew things about me I didn’t know. That I should know.

It was harmless, but I couldn’t stand the extra attention. His eyes lingered a little too long on certain students, including me. I didn’t want to be near him. I couldn’t let him think that I wanted that attention, I thought as I sat in class afterward. I hated it.

Several computer classes later, it was the thought of his attention combined with my disdain for it that arranged my face into that look, almost subconsciously but not quite. I sat, half-twisted in my seat, as I angled an ear toward him to listen to his lecture. I felt the tightening across my cheeks, my lips; my eyes focused on the wall.

He noticed. He stopped lecturing, and said to me, “I’d like to slap that look off your face.”

I dared myself to stare into his eyes. It registered that he was referring to me, and that look fell away. I was too stunned to speak. None of the other students reacted. No one came to my aid, no one laughed; it was oddly still. We were used to hearing reprimands for students behaving badly. But this was different. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect next. I remember him walking back around his desk and my recoiling and twisting back to face my monitor. He read off the assignment, which we were all to work on, silently. I pretended to take notes, do the work, while I wondered what to do, the teacher at his desk behind me, my face hot, too hot to bear. The fear froze me in place, like I shouldn’t make any sudden movements, that I should make myself quiet and small—that I should make myself invisible.

Later that day I told my mother what happened in class and for some reason I didn’t expect the extent to which she’d react. “WHAT?” she said to me, slamming the mail down on the counter. I flinched in surprise. “He said what?” Her eyebrows were raised, her eyes penetrating, her mouth a straight line. Growing up, she’d told me many stories of her Catholic school upbringing, the nuns cracking rulers across knuckles, sticks across skulls, outbursts unexpected and painful. This wasn’t physical violence, it was only a threat. But it also wasn’t 1970, it was 2003. Most of her stories involved a female nun and a male student. I was in public school, I was a young female student contending with a much older male teacher. I had assumed that nothing could be done about his behavior, that it was just a passing story, a way to relate to my mother who witnessed outright violence. Her reaction helped me realize how deluded I was, how much I’d been socialized in this deference.

It was ironic to me that I’d been so well-behaved, so indoctrinated, so often the perfect student providing always-attentive eye contact in class—and yet something so subtle, so silent, something almost involuntary would cause this man to cross a line. There were plenty of aggressive students surrounding me in the halls, openly fighting with each other, swearing at teachers, students willing to demonstrate their rage and recklessness. I was not one of them. This experience was the only time I witnessed a comment of this nature from a teacher, and it was directed at me.

I came to school the next day with a note for my guidance counselor from my mother. I sat in his office, told the story, and was surprised to be met with cautious disbelief. “Mr. L’s never been in trouble before,” he said, and looked up at me.

“I don’t know what to tell you, that’s what he said,” I responded. I summoned my strength, channeled my mother, and added, “I don’t want to take his class anymore.”

When I think about it now, I know that no one could ever strike that look from my face—it’s part of me. It’s part of my life in this world. I don’t call it a mask because it’s not a façade—it is a channeling. It is a conjuring of ferocity contained.

***

Over time, the look evolved into many things: intense focus on everything other than the man catcalling me on the street, masculine body language with zero sway in my hips, an attempt to look disheveled on the train if I felt eyes on me. It is much more than the lack of a smile, a face turned to stone. It involves my entire body and mind.

Women don’t have the privilege to walk around the world inattentive—we are expected to provide our attention, and we are told that if we don’t express recognition, we leave ourselves open to attack. That’s lesson one in self-defense classes: your expression of awareness is sometimes your most powerful weapon. We are told by society that we are responsible for our self-protection, that it is our fault when things go wrong. What was she wearing? Why was she walking home so late?

This is why I take my headphones off when walking home from the train station at night, why I make sure to casually look around and behind me. I learned in self-defense that a woman who is paying attention is ready to defend herself, and therefore, not the most attractive target. I’m constantly signaling to anyone watching that I’m watching, and I’m not interested in being messed with. This is my version of don’t you dare. I have taken on the responsibility for the misbehavior of men. The mere fact that I’m a woman makes me hyperconscious of the space I take up, how I present and protect the body I was born with. It’s fucked up, and it’s exhausting.

In 2014, the artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh brought her public art installation “Stop Telling Women to Smile to Northeastern University. I recall seeing the large-scale posters of unsmiling women on the sides of buildings throughout the city of Boston. The series focused specifically on street harassment and used images of the women she interviewed and their words to speak back to harassers. These included, “My outfit is not an invitation,” and “You can keep your thoughts on my body to yourself,” and, my favorite, “I am not here for you.” They resonated with me deeply. They allowed me to think about moments facing unwanted attention in my life from the outside, looking in. I experience it so often and have developed so many defense mechanisms that most of the minor incidents are completely blocked out. But they shouldn’t be: we should be looking at them with a critical eye. Everyone should be talking about them, and questioning them, and we should all be asking not only what a world in which we didn’t need so many defense mechanisms would look like, but how do we get there?

In her essay, “Why I Don’t Leave the House Without Putting on Black Eyeshadow,” R.O. Kwon demonstrates a similar reactionary display of that look. In describing what she looks like with her eyeshadow, she says, “The adjective I most often hear is fierce, which I love; tired as I am of pretending to be happy, I’m even more surfeited of being mistaken as docile. It’s easy enough to see how that happens. I live in the patriarchy; I’m accordingly socialized.” She writes specifically of being an Asian-American woman, and that for her it’s not possible to talk about her looks without also considering the element of racism. She mentions that because of race, “People often assume I’m harmless, someone who’ll let them get away with unacceptable behavior, and what I hope to convey, a little, even if it’s just with a centimeter of extra makeup, is that I’m not, I won’t.”

In recognizing Kwon’s approach to that look, I’ve reckoned with the fact that no matter how scared I sometimes am when I walk home at night, I know that I have an added layer of privilege and protection other people don’t have. My own whiteness protects me, as does the fact that I am cisgendered and able-bodied. Not until many years later did I acknowledge this, and now I think back to that moment in high school, when my teacher said what he said, and would he have crossed even more lines if I wasn’t white? Would he have said something racist? Would he have felt free to commit physical violence?

I was walking down one of the busiest streets in Boston a few years ago, talking about work with my male boss. It was warm for February, and there were lots of people out, enjoying the sun. My guard was down. I wasn’t thinking of how I was presenting myself or my face, I just was. As we walked by a man on the street, he turned to us and said to me, loudly, “You have a great face, I love your mouth,” and this, to my boss, “How’d you get a woman like that?” I blinked hard and my face fell into that look like it always does in these situations. But I didn’t stop walking.

“What?” my boss responded, more of a challenge than a question, and we just kept walking, struggling to get back to our conversation. Just thinking about it, I feel the same wrenched pang in my chest I felt then. The momentary humiliation and anger I felt still burns, even now. I didn’t expect my boss to respond or defend me. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have preferred he’d said nothing, but it may have been worse had he not acknowledged it at all. Most of the time I’m alone facing these comments, and I’ve developed a remarkable ability to ignore them. Engaging with harassers is never how I answer.

I smile and men feel they’ve been invited to talk to me. I wear that look and men are provoked to comment. I exist, without thinking of how I’m presenting my face, and men feel the freedom to make mention of it.

***

I’ve been thinking, too, about the term “Resting Bitch Face.” This term, which I’ve often heard referred to as RBF, is used to describe women who aren’t walking around sporting smiles. Some would say their faces are blank, while others take offense to what they deem as angry, bitchy. The inclusion of the word “resting” implies that the look isn’t intentional—it’s just how someone’s face looks when they aren’t deliberately expressing emotion. But despite this resting lack of action, women are criticized for it, asked to explain it. The “bitch” part comes into play when you consider the fact that women are expected to be pleasant, happy, smiling. “Bitch” is gendered; it is meant to apply to women, first and foremost, and the same is true of this term: RBF. There are no gray areas for women—if you’re not smiling, you’re a bitch.

RBF is a cousin of that look, not the same, primarily because of the action and intentionality of that look, the one I’ve cultivated. There’s an element of vagueness, boredom, to RBF, whereas in that look there is hardness and force. I’ve been asked, at times of intense concentration in work settings for example, if I was angry about something, or if I was okay. Confused, I would respond that I was fine and when questioned about why they were asking in the first place, they’d mention my look and I’d have to say, “Oh, that’s just my face.” We, the RBF-labeled, are asked to answer for our facial expressions, as if they are incorrect, wrong.  

It started with pop culture icons: celebrity actresses, female fashion designers, even Queen Elizabeth. The term was thrown around online and became a meme in 2013, the same year a mock-PSA about Resting Bitch Face (then called “Bitchy Resting Face”) went viral. In 2016, The Washington Post published an article describing a scientific study into the phenomenon of RBF. Behavioral researchers had decided to investigate. They asked, “Why are some faces seen as truly expressionless, but others are inexplicably off-putting? What, exactly, makes us register a seemingly neutral expression as RBF?”

They employed a face-analyzing software to study the natural, neutral faces of more than 10,000 women and men. They found that eyes and mouths that drooped down at the corners were what registered more negative emotions than other faces that did not have this downward pull. Interestingly, without the gender bias that comes with being a human in our society—a society that punishes women for RBF—the experiment yielded RBF results equally in men and women. “Which means that the idea of RBF as a predominantly female phenomenon has little to do with facial physiology and more to do with social norms,” according to The Washington Post. In this study, contempt was the emotion responsible for the marked differences between faces with RBF and faces without.

I think this is fascinating and telling, because men wear contemptuous looks and we say nothing. Or we say they are strong, and tough, and respected. We don’t accuse them of having RBF, though they do. And in our society when women wear them, they are hated and reviled. They are told they should be smiling instead.

If we take this a step further—beyond the lack of expressing happiness and accommodation—to actual expression of negative emotions, we know that women are unfairly penalized far more than men. A perfect example of this is how Serena Williams was treated during her U.S. Open loss against Naomi Osaka in 2018. The umpire made what many in the tennis community deem to be unfair calls, which agitated Williams and led to her calling him a “thief” and a “liar,” which resulted in another penalty that cost her the game. There are countless examples of male tennis players expressing anger similarly, even totally melting down, destroying their rackets, to far lesser repercussions.

In a New York Times article by Maya Salam, she writes about Williams, “As a woman, she was met with backlash because she abandoned traditionally feminine behaviors: ‘modest, self-effacing and nice…’ And as a black woman, an added [racist] trope that often befalls women of color—loud, angry or simply out of control—was applied to her.” Salam says that when men expressed anger in their workplaces they were “given more power and autonomy in their jobs,” but that “the opposite is true for women.” Black women in particular are contending with both sexism and racism in these scenarios. It’s a constant needle to thread for them, to express their thoughts and feelings firmly but attempt to avoid these racist labels on top of sexist ones. Not only does Williams refuse to smile and adhere to the deferential behaviors, but she took her power back—she used her platform to talk about these disparities and inspired women to speak up for themselves.

But women are socialized from a young age to be amiable, positive, cooperative. I include myself in this—despite knowing how much this can be a detriment to me, it’s incredibly hard to unlearn and undo. My years in customer service have reinforced it, as have my years as support staff in offices. I still to this day review emails before hitting send to remove extraneous exclamation marks and the word “just” and any other deferential language. We are used to women behaving this way and so when they behave differently—confident, forceful, uncompromising, serious—we, society, take offense. This is another thing I am trying to unlearn. Both Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren have been accused of sounding shrill when they communicate their policy positions, when they clearly and directly state their plans and opinions, while the other men on stage alongside them are not critiqued in the same way—even the ones who raise their voices to yell: Trump, Sanders, Bloomberg. In the 2020 vice presidential debate, Kamala Harris remained calm and made a point of not raising her voice, but she was direct. Harris has her own version of that look—she threw in a raised eyebrow here, made eye contact with her opponent and rested her chin in her hand there. She employed the expression men are constantly asking women to give them—a smile—but Republican men and news media still accused her of smirking. 

It’s a signal, the dropped smile of RBF, the hardness and intensity of that look. It says: I am not an easy win. I want more than this. It says: I do not serve you. Toxic masculinity makes men feel that they must never make concessions, that they must always be the aggressor, that they must always win. That look is a challenge for these men—it intimidates and surprises and makes them question their power, especially when they have gone unquestioned long enough. It makes fragile men say things like, “I’d like to slap that look off your face.” They try to take women down a notch, in an effort to flip the power dynamic back in their favor. But they’ve told on themselves. They’ve exposed their own fragility in the process. They’re scared, and we can see them squirm.

***

I was allowed to drop that computer class in high school but wasn’t transferred to a new one. I spent the rest of the term in the guidance office for that period, reading and doing homework. A year later, I saw Mr. L again as I often did—his classroom was in the same hallway as my locker. One day, when leaving school, I noticed him down the hall, and he seemed somehow smaller, meeker. I could tell he was looking at my shirt, and I knew why. As I walked by him with my friends he said, “Great band,” referring to the tiny rhinestones across my chest, which spelled out the words Led Zeppelin. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of a smile, the recognition, but I held his eye contact intensely as I walked past. At the last moment, despite myself, I gave him a wry look over my shoulder, lips pressed together and just slightly raised at the corners, one of those looks women use to placate the men of this world.

Since that time, I’ve had many opportunities to think about how to be in the world, how to navigate situations that make me uncomfortable, and how to exist in a social structure that itemizes and regulates all that comes with being a woman in this country—a structure originally forged and maintained by men, but one I’m hoping to help change. I’ve thought a lot about the arsenal of looks I’ve inherited from my mother: when to use them, when to hold back. I know that now, I would no longer feel the need to smile back at Mr. L, however mocking that smile may have been. Today, I would just keep walking—back straight, eyes on the door, a face focused on where I’d rather be.

LAUREN RHEAUME is an essayist and the HR & Operations Manager at GrubStreet in Boston, MA. Her work has been published at Boston Accent, Crack the Spine, and Thimble, among others. You can find her at lauren-rheaume.com.

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