That's Just How My Face Is

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“Are you OK? You look so mad!” People ask me this all. the. time. Even when I'm out at a bar having the time of my life. Ever since I was young, the “Why so sad?” questions have plagued me like I’m a furiously countenanced version of The Joker. My resting bitchface is as much a part of me as my incessant crush on John Luther—let me heal your tender, wounded heart!—and my undying devotion to anything that marries caramel with chocolate. I make my way through the world, at times irate, at times euphoric, at times zoning out because I’m contemplating the unfair question, Why are there not actually two Armie Hammers in real life? No matter what I’m thinking, when my face rests, I look put-out. It’s not a full-on furrowed brow, but more of a flatline mouth accompanied by a very focused gaze. Some people interpret it as seething—others as melancholy. Some also think of it as intriguing, but for years, I was blind to that. The way I saw it, my resting bitchface made me less attractive.

This wasn’t a problem growing up. I went to a tiny, Catholic, all-girls school from the age of seven to 18. It’s still one of my favorite places in the world, and those girls knew me so well my potentially intimidating face never fazed them. You know how sometimes people say, “If you keep making that face, it’ll get stuck like that?” If that were true, it would be so easy to blame the demonic period in my teenage years for my perpetually pissed-off face. I suspect it’s much simpler than that—the musculature that makes up my face fall. So maybe there's nothing I can do–but it doesn’t mean I didn’t try.

I met my best friend during my second year of college. Everyone adored her, and with good reason. She has a whole host of excellent qualities that would obliterate the word count of this piece if I tried to list them. The fascinating thing about us is that on the surface, we’re opposites. Her sunny disposition and ever-present beam make people want to know her, draw her closer, drink her in. People don't feel that way with me. Sure, I had friends, but meeting people and actually being able to track how I was winning them over with every smile? Not quite. This was in the middle of my early onset quarter-life crisis, when I was struggling to figure out who I was in college, as one does. I was fascinated by how people reacted to her aura as if it made her even more beautiful, and then I realized it definitely did (and does still). It translates into some sort of openness to the world that’s so alluring. Bitchface does the opposite of that. Not only are people not drawn to it, it made me feel less attractive. Unless I was breaking out into a smile, people were wary of me. It doesn't matter that science shows that face-ism, or judging s person's personality based on their facial appearance, is a (potentially dangerous) thing. Expressions can be misleading, but it’s just human nature to interpret them at will.

So, I put my bitchface on pause. I tried the vivacious, ceaselessly happy 24/7 thing on for size. I was over intimidating interested guys, and even worse, my bitchface didn’t terrify the people I actually wanted it to. I’m more than happy for women whose don’t-mess-with-me glares fend off cat-callers. For me, the combination of my bitchface and my race meant a lot of men felt entitled to tell me I should paste on a smile, overjoyed that they thought I was pretty enough to be noticed. What was the point of my bitchface if it couldn't even fend off losers like that? So I plastered a smile onto my face until my cheeks hurt, pushing myself to exude some of that sparkle. It was a total and utter failure. People could tell I wasn’t being real, drawing accusations of fakery. I abandoned ship quickly.

Then I quit pretending. I fully embraced my resting bitchface, and it’s here to stay. Hiding my bitchface had also buried a part of my personality—the one who knows playfulness is at the core of her deadpan answers to guys at bars, the one who puts on a Southern accent and lies to see if men can go along, the mischievous one who gets her jollies in a way that reaches much deeper than the surface. And if someone can’t look past my bitchface for even a second and consider that, no I’m not actually a horrific bitch, then I don’t know that their opinions matter to me. No, I’ll never be the bubbly type who is always wearing a smile that broadcasts her good humor. Forget that “the eyes are the window to the soul”—my entire face is. It says I’m teeming with sassiness, ready to come up with a razor-sharp comeback in one second and prepared to listen, truly and deeply, to your latest romantic dilemma the next. I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

—Zahra Barnes

The author photographed by Tom Newton.