Insights into Psychology

What Is… Resting Bitch Face

Resting bitch face: real or just sexist? - image of Louis XIV of France
That’s King Louis XIV of France showing off his RBF.

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is resting bitch face.

Okay, so the term resting bitch face certainly doesn’t sound scientific, and it isn’t. However, it does seem to be related to an actual physical phenomenon. So, do some people actually have a not-so-pleasant-looking neutral facial expression, and if so, why?

Emotional expressions

As far back as Charles Darwin, certain facial expressions of emotions were believed to be universal across geography and cultural groups. A fair bit of research evidence has accumulated to back this up, particularly with respect to the emotions anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

Macroexpressions, which last 1/2 a second or more and involve the entire face, are the easiest to pick up. There are also microexpressions, which only last fractions of a second. These appear to be involuntary, and produced by a different part of the brain than macroexpressions.

When we encounter other people, we automatically try to assess what their emotional state is likely to be based on their facial expression. Even when the expression is neutral, we still try to look for something, even if that something is too minor to represent actual emotion states. We then make generalizations based on what we think we see.

Facial expression analysis and RBF

Testing done using Noldus’s FaceReader facial expression analysis tool showed that most people’s neutral expressions were 97% neutral, while the remaining 3% included bits of emotional expressions. When the faces of Kanye West, Kristen Stewart, and Queen Elizabeth were analyzed, their neutral expressions were 93% neutral, and 6% demonstrative of subtle indicators suggesting emotions, primarily contempt. These subtle emotional cues included a tightening of the eyes and certain changes around the lips. Not a big shift, but enough for our minds to decide it’a there.

King Louis IV with resting bitch face expression

Wikipedia provides this picture of French King Louis XIV as an example of resting bitch face. To me, the tightening of the lips stands out as RBF-ish.

Curious as to whether you have resting bitch face? You can visit the site TestRBF.com, upload a photo, and find out FaceReader’s analysis. There’s no easy-to-find privacy info on the site, and you don’t have to enter personal details, but presumably, by uploading your neutral expression photo, they will add that photo to their database. The bigger their database is, the more the technology can artificially learn, and the more effective FaceReader can be.

There are plastic surgery websites that claim that they can correct resting bitch face. Given that RBF is associated with actual physical cues, I’m sure surgery can have an effect. Whether anyone should care enough to lay out that kind of cash and go under the knife is a whole other question. On a somewhat related note, years ago, there was a local male reporter whose resting expression included a very scrunched up forehead. It was prominent enough that it was a bit distracting. Eventually, he must have gotten Botox, because no more scrunching, and it made him look calmer and more self-assured.

The role of sex/gender

Facial recognition software shows that resting bitch face is distributed evenly across the sexes, but socially, it seems to be viewed as a female thing. Samantha Grossman writes in The Week that “If you’re a woman and you have a face, chances are good that at some point, you’ve been accused of having ‘resting bitch face.'” Perhaps part of the issue is that women are socially expected to smile, so not smiling gets conflated with resting bitch face.

A paper in the journal Emotion argued that emotional first impressions are used to assess different things depending on whether the person being observed is a male or a female. If it’s a female, perceived cues indicating negative emotions are used to judge attractiveness. If it’s a male, those visual cues are used to judge level of threat.

While it would be easy to write off RBF as something that’s purely sexist, it seems like there really is an interplay between the way our brain evaluates small differences in facial expression and the cultural importance that’s placed on certain forms of emotional expression. Less black and white, more shades of grey.


In my first year math class, a particular female classmate caught my attention because she had resting bitch face. I never had occasion to interact with her, so I knew nothing about what she was like as a person. The next year, we ended up becoming close friends, but I still thought she had resting bitch face.

Perhaps the lesson is to take our first impressions with a grain of salt. We’re hard-wired the same way our caveman ancestors were when we had to make snap judgments about who to let into our cave, but usefulness in some contexts doesn’t make it accurate.

Sources

  • American Psychological Association: Science Brief: Reading facial expressions of emotions
  • Hester, N. (2019). Perceived negative emotion in neutral faces: Gender-dependent effects on attractiveness and threat. Emotion19(8), 1490.
  • The Week: The insidious sexism of ‘resting bitch face’
  • Washington Post: Scientists have discovered what causes Resting Bitch Face
The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

42 thoughts on “What Is… Resting Bitch Face”

  1. I liked the video – However I look that’s how I feel – I’ve got one of those faces – not hard to read me at all. My late, great cat, Miss Frankie Lulu Belle had the most extreme RBF…

  2. A blogger whose blog I read says she has cultivated her RBF as a way of stopping people invading her personal space on crowded public transport (pre-COVID).

    As a child, I was sometimes told off by my parents for giving “black looks” at people when I did not intend anything wrong, which I assumed was some kind of autistic thing, but may be RBF. Certainly I know how to deliberately use my face and general body language to get people to leave me alone not unlike the blogger I mentioned.

    1. I’ve never come across any articles, but it would be interesting to read about how people with autism, mental health health issues, etc. use facial expressions not only to mask but to give off “leave me alone” type messages.

      1. People with hearing loss depend heavily on facial expressions to decipher words. I often lose about half the conversation due to hearing loss but get by understanding 75% or more of the verbal context simply because I watch the face and body language.

        1. My French isn’t great, but I can understand way more if I can see the person talking vs. just hearing them; I can see how that face/body language element would be really important with hearing loss.

  3. I have it, which I attribute to pain. I’m usually a bit “scrunched up” because something hurts. Men used to demand I SMILE! which is so fucking irritating, but I thought those days were gone. Nope! Some older guy told me to smile the other week at a concert while I was looking for my seat number and trying not to step on people’s feet. It’s infuriating that a stranger thinks he has the right to comment on my face. Women have never told me to smile…

  4. I have 2 questions, 1) I would love to know if Queen Elizabeth has a resting bitch face and 2) ‘if you’re a woman, and have a face’… WHAT… what is the thing called then? Can somebody not have a face?

    1. According to what the FaceReader software comes up with, Queen Elizabeth does have RBF, which is interesting, because her smiling face isn’t bitchy at all.

      The thing about being a woman and having a face was to do with sexism and women being expected to smile and be pretty all the time, and the person was suggesting any neutral expression on a female face would be considered bitch by men.

  5. Oh yeah, the queen definitely gives off contempt. In waves! (Oh wow, I just made a double entendre that I didn’t even intend. Go me!) Huh. This was interesting and informative!! I guess that’s the guy who named my city, Louisville, but I’m not sure. There were more than one King Louis, right? Googling… nope it was Louis XIV, his grandson? Huh. Anyway, it’s weird because I always feel social pressure to have the right resting face whenever I’m sitting in a classroom. I feel obligated to look interested in what I’m being taught, with eyes on the teacher and pencil poised. I’ve never felt comfortable just letting my expression relax in a social setting. Maybe if I’m shopping at the grocery store, but not if I’m actively engaged with people. It’s weird because I don’t have social anxiety in general, but I guess it feels more like social pressure?

    Oh my gosh, Granny Franny had RBF, may she rest in peace. I just remembered that in college I was supposed to write a paper analyzing someone’s body language, and I chose her. I wrote that her mouth was always pinched shut like a drawstring sack because she was uptight and rigid and couldn’t relax, and for whatever weird reason the teacher wrote, “I really think you’re taking a giant leap there,” and I was facepalming all over campus. [Shaking my head.] I mean, come on. Really?

  6. I love how much thought and analysis you gave this!

    I don’t think I have RBF. I feel like I am not very good at manipulating my facial expressions properly though. Like I have one facial expression. That is one reason why I did not go into theater. (The other reason is a lack of talent).

  7. I have the worst RBF even more so on my meds.. 😆 people always say to me oh I thought you hated me or I thought you were a bitch when I first met you 😆 I can’t help it it’s just my face! Xx

  8. It’s interesting how faces rest at “neutral”, and how we then interpret those that aren’t as neutral as we expect them to be. Some are more negative in emotion, but I’m sure I’ve seen plenty of people who, either in a still photo or when acting and trying to look neutral, end up looking like they’ve got a small smirk playing with their lips.

    The dickturd in UK government who has since resigned, Matt Hancock, is one of those with a smirk continually on his face. But at least we know that initial judgement is correct. It’s not just how his face looks. He really is just a smarmy bastard.

    I’d never heard of TestRBF before. It’s one of those things I find I’m curious about, but then can’t help but wonder whether my head will appear on someone else’s body in a porn video one day.

    I think the whole Resting Bitch Face thing is usually applied to women, too. It’s one thing to say someone has RBF, but another to make inferences on their character just from the natural set of their face. It makes me think of the “Karen” malarky that got taken far out of context, which I don’t like at all. It’s somehow niggling away at how boring, nagging and severe we mere little ladies are.

    I agree with you there. It’s an automatic way we form judgements and assessments in split seconds, so such inferences we make aren’t necessarily accurate.

    I used to get told quite a lot when I was younger to stop being so miserable or “smile, it might not happen”, all the usual naffness. Anyway, most of the time I was really surprised because it was just my face. I wasn’t miserable, I was just stood around waiting, no emotion affecting my face. I guess I just has Resting Miserable Face.

  9. I definitely have RBF because everyone I know tells me they thought I hated them at first 😂. In conversation I always sarcastically joke as well which makes me seem like even more of a dickhead

    1. *sad or angry. I have been told that I look aloof or something. I consciously make the effort to smile and look more friendly in settings I need to build rapport with people. But I definitely like being able to have “a black look” so people don’t hassle me. I’m usually anxious and people pleasing, so if I can reduce the frequency of being hassled by irritating people trying to push a product on me or answer some “just a minute!” surveys (which are often way longer than a minute)… yay for RBF!

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