The Professional Implications of a “Naturally Frowny Face”

A recent SNL episode featured a fictional campaign advertisement for a mayoral candidate.  The character, Glenda Okones (played by Kristen Wiig),  listed her flaws, including her reputation for being harsh and cold.  “Here’s why,” she said:  “I just have a naturally frowny face. Not ugly, but certainly severe looking.”

Ah, perfect, I thought: an opportunity to talk about bitchface.

I’ll admit: the main reason we haven’t talked about it before is because I didn’t want to use bad words in the headline of the post!  But I think this is something that can affect a professional woman’s career, and something we should talk about.

Now I admit, wholeheartedly, that I have a naturally frowny face.  A reader once remarked that in my videos I’m always super smiley — it’s primarily because I end up looking super annoyed if I’m not.  (If I have time I’ll have to dig out some scrapped footage from the Lancome sponsored post — I couldn’t believe the video editors got so much usable footage of me looking serious because when I sent it in I worried I just looked bitchy.  Here:  me, serene but not smiling , versus me, actually pissed off.) I think most times it doesn’t matter.  After all, if I’m talking with people they can usually tell that I’m not super annoyed, and if I’m not talking to people (such as if I’m just walking down the street), I don’t really care what you think of me.

That said, I can think of at least one time this trait affected me professionally.  A few years ago I was part of a very small trial team in federal court in Philadelphia.  After a few days of trial, I grew weary of the high calorie, rushed lunches my colleagues ate, and so I excused myself and ducked out to the Subway across the street. Just as I was nearing the front of a very long line, almost all of the female members of the jury walked in.  The first thought that went through my mind was panic — should I turn and walk out?  (I stayed. Which, looking back, was probably the wrong decision.)  Would they recognize me?  (Of course they would — it was an empty courtroom every day except for the lawyers, jury, judge, and occasional witness.)  Should I try to make conversation?  Compliment someone’s bag?  Talk about the sandwich I was looking forward to?  (I decided not to speak unless spoken to.)

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Having made all these difficult decisions in the space of about two seconds, I was left standing there wondering what to do.  I didn’t want to fiddle with my phone or Blackberry — they might see some private conversation or think I was self-absorbed.  I realized that, no matter what they thought of my case, my fellow attorneys, or my behavior during the trial, I wanted them, above all else, to not think I was a total bitch.  I didn’t want it to come up in the jury deliberation room — “oh, the side with those stuck-up New York lawyers?” — and I didn’t want it to come up in the back of their minds.  In fact, never in my life had I wanted to look so approachable, so reasonable, so likeable, as I did in those few minutes… and that includes the first time I met my future in-laws.

What I wound up doing was studying the menu — like I had never been to a Subway before in my life! — and doing my very, very best to think happy, contented thoughts.  I thought of my then-boyfriend (now husband), and our upcoming trip to Paris.  I thought of a great sale that I’d been to a week or so before.  I thought of a funny inside joke my brother and I have shared for the past 25 years or so.  And then I ordered my sandwich (being extra careful to say please and thank you), and got the heck out of that Subway shop.

Ever since that Subway experience, I’ve wondered about bitchface.  Can it really affect you professionally?  I can imagine that I probably looked like a bitch when I was taking notes in all of my classes, particularly the classes where I wasn’t engaged — did teachers think less of me because of my naturally frowny face?  In interviews, many people say the first impression, such as seeing someone in a waiting room, is what matters — should I always attempt to “think happy thoughts” during those time periods?  Does it matter that this is one of those peculiar female problems — for example, how many male politicians and trial lawyers tell themselves to think happy thoughts during their moments in repose?

Readers, what do you think?  Do you think you have a naturally frowny face — and how has it affected your professional life? 


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  1. When people say “smile!” I interpret it as “cheer up!” i.e. hope your mood improves as opposed to you need to look a certain way for me.
    A charitable way to interpret, and at least occasionally a truthful one, I think.

    • Business, Not Law :

      But coming from a stranger? It’s awfully presumptuous to assume I am in a bad mood or SHOULD change my mood. Seems several us have a naturally neutral or b-face and the comment presumes there is something “wrong” with the way we are expressing ourselves.

      Not trying to be nasty, but as someone who is actually very kind and pleasant most of the time, the “smile” comment has really gotten to me over the years!

      • It’s gotten to me, too! After reading this thread, I’m inspired to go around exclaiming “Smile!” to the random men I pass.
        I’ve spent years giving charitable interpretations to such behavior. I’m tired of defending my neutral demeanor to strangers- when I never ask anything of them. How about men try saying “hello” and smiling at me? That would go a lot further then the shades of “what’s wrong honey,” “why dontcha try smiling” BS I encounter frequently.

      • I grew up in a lousy neighborhood and men on the street would yell at me to smile all the time. They weren’t interested in cheering me up. They want to impose their presence. It was a form of harassment.

      • It gets to me too and I have on occasion replied “Why?” and waited for a response. If they respond at all, they say it’s because I am “too pretty not to smile” or the like, which confirms the objectification in my opinion. No one ever responds with, “because it’s a beautiful day and you’re alive” or something actually cheering. I suppose some people may be cheered up by being told they are pretty but if being pretty means I am obligated to smile all the time, I’m not sure it’s a quality I desire all that much.

    • Yeah, sorry, I don’t need to rearrange my face to satisfy a stranger, regardless of his (or her) motive. They’re being rude, plain and simple.

    • I think it could be interpreted this way. BUT — if you think about it, would you be surprised to hear someone telling a *man* to smile? I think I would.

      • Different Anon :

        Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s the asymmetry of it that raises my eyebrows (no Botox yet, but probably soon!)

    • Totes McGotes :

      Yes, but they don’t know anything about your mood or if it needs improvement at all. To me, it’s just as intrusive as going up to a stranger and saying, “You should really [wear your hair down/try a different color coat/wax your lip/wear a different size bra].” Even if all those things are true, it’s rude to say them to a stranger who’s just minding her own business. How is the recipient supposed to feel about any of those comments?

      I think that sometimes people think they are being sweet by doing this, and I try not to snap at them, but I can’t get around the fact that 1) this doesn’t happen to men; and 2) there are other ways of spreading cheer. You could smile at the person yourself, or just say, “Good morning” or “Have a nice day.” I would even respond positively to, “I bet you have a beautiful smile.” I’m actually really hard to offend, but I don’t think it’s okay to tell a random stranger what to do.

      Granted, this does not happen to me often because I try to wear a contented look in public. I tend to smile and laugh a lot so people who see me often think I’m upset if I’m not actively smiling. However, one day I was lost in thought about something, and the girl working in the cafe where I was waiting in line said something to the tune of, “Cheer up! Your day will get better,” which just came off as incredibly presumptuous to me. Then she screwed up my order. You can imagine what that did for my mood.

      • YES. EXACTLY.
        All of you who are saying, “Oh, don’t be so sensitive, those people just hope you’ll feel better!”
        #1. Would a stranger EVER say to a man on the street, “Smile!” No. Men are not expected to be smiling and happy all the time, and you’d probably be intimidated to say that to a man.
        #2. Maybe I have a good reason for looking sad or upset, and that reason is none of your business. If a stranger is so concerned about my mood, they could smile at me, say hello, maybe even ask if I’m okay. “Smile!” is not the same as “I hope you feel better.” It’s more like, “I expect you to look attractive.”

        I totally have b*tchface, and not like a tough face, but more like I always look grim when I’m not actively talking to someone or smiling. I agree that it’s not great for interpersonal relations, but whatever. It’s my face. (My mom used to use this very specific word in our language that means something like a cross between “disgusting” and “horrible” to describe my face. She was convinced I would make that face on purpose to annoy her. I WAS BORN THAT WAY OKAY.)

      • THIS!
        I don’t understand how other women DON’T find being ordered to do something insulting. I’m a person going about my day, I’m not here to look pretty for you.
        I rarely talk to strangers on the street or public transit unless it’s an “Excuse me” as I pass by them, or “Thanks” for holding the door or letting me pass by. (clearly I am always rushing places).
        One time I was told by an older man to “smile, because the young men want happy ladies”, and I had just broken up with my BF that morning. I ignored him, but it definitely made my day worse.

        For work, I have the opposite problem. I’m in my 20’s and very short, so looking professional and authoritative is hard for me. I constantly remind myself to smile and nod less.

  2. This is me. I get told all the time I look serious. When I see people I know on the street or in a meeting I go out of my way to smile big and light up. I have been told I “need” botox but have been avoiding it because I don’t want to think of myself as someone who gets regular plastic surgery and because I just don’t want to spend the money. I am 42 though and I suppose its just going to get worse. Would love more feedback from people like the one above who did get it.

    • Please, please — a little perspective here. Clears throat. Makes sure room is paying attention:

      Botox is NOT plastic surgery. Botox, like regular bikini line waxing, is simply good maintenance.

      That is all.

      • Make that “good grooming.”

        • Um – no, I do not equate regular bikini line waxing to a medical procedure performed by trained doctors that involves shooting poison into one’s face via needles. I bet lots of owmen won’t even buy regular waxing as necessary maintenance. Sorry.
          If you want to get botox great, but its inane to pretend that it is now the ‘norm’ and is not in fact a cosmetic procedure that needs to be performed by a licensed MD.

          • Oh, of course, I go to a very experienced dermatologist whose qualifications I verified obsessively before the first visit. Never meant to suggest otherwise.

      • Botox is a cosmetic procedure that goes way beyond basic “grooming.”

  3. This. There is a difference between a neutral face and a frown, yet many people treat a woman’s neutral face the same as a frown. Ugh. Like many other commenters, I am a city girl with a b—-face developed from years of walking in crowded areas and using public transit.

  4. anon for this :

    I’ve had this come up a few times– I don’t have a bitchface, actually the opposite, with a slight smile. The problem is that I’m not a very outgoing person (not shy, just not very chatty or excitable), and it’s been remarked to me in both personal and professional situations that I seem to have a fake facade, or don’t seem “genuine.”

    I’m unsure how to combat that– if I try to push myself to be more social, then I truly wander into “fake” territory and wind up seeming ridiculous.

  5. Praxidike :

    I have a frownyface, no question. I don’t really care about it, either. It has not hindered me in business (in any way of which I am aware, at least) and I would rather be serious-looking than look bouncy/giggly all the time. If you know me and talk to me, I smile and have an excellent sense of humor. I would say the ONLY reason I would consider changing and trying to look happier (and it isn’t important enough to actually do it, mind you) is because some people report that I am “standoffish” because I don’t embody the typical female set of body language gestures intended to make others feel more comfortable.

  6. I admit, I have a bitchface, and i never knew people called it “bitchface”. A lot of ppl hesitate talking to me, and think I’m arrogant. What can I do, it’s something I gotta live with, except in those situations when I consciously try to smile and be all :)

  7. economyaki :

    If I had been allowed to hang it at work, I’d have hung this up in my cubicle:

    Actually a lot of people tend to be taken aback when they get to know me because I have a really bad case of spacy/ditzy/giggly when I’m a little bit nervous. I think that’s way worse in the workplace! People sort of at least assume with bitchface that you’re (usually) competent.

  8. Female judges seem to develop permanent b!tchface.

  9. I think I have serious face. Don’t do much about it. Interesting thread.

    Hate the ‘smile’ people. Leave me alone. Maybe I just got bad news. Maybe I’m in a good mood. Shut up.

    On a related note, I love living in Seattle but the locals’ comments have been annoying husband and I all week. At work, often get supplemental foods in cafeteria to go with brought foods. Almost every time, I get “that isn’t enough for lunch! (broccoli or something). Um, stop assuming I am anorexic and/or that that’s my whole lunch, and mind your own business. I can’t bring myself to defense self to explain it. Any good quips people can think of? If it’s happening 20 yrs from now, I might throw the broccoli in their face.

    This weekend, husband and I running errands with dog. First comment (old guy with bike) outside deli: teach your dog better manners. her barking is obnoxious. husband replies: i think you are obnoxious. (he goes away). had I been there, I might have lost it and railed on about how she’s a rescue dog and is enrolled in training, and he should stay home all day if he doesn’t like it. and is a jerk and probably likes kill shelters. shut up, jerk. Then, coming out of pet store with crate to PROTECT her if car accident occurs (friend’s dog darted down highway when window smashed), another old guy passing says ‘prison’. wtf?? husband replies: actually it’s for her safety. i didn’t hear what he said, which is probably a good thing.
    There were more.. all on saturday… super annoying passive aggressive judgy irritants. they need to get a life. Venting. Everywhere I’ve lived, the locals have had annoying qualities, can’t say these are any worse overall than any version other places, but certain days I want to use major B-face on them and let loose with a new york attitude.

    • just to clarify, the food commenters are in the elevator and always people i don’t know. hope someone has a good comeback i can start using.

      • Oh, this is actually a snack for my pet alligator.
        You should take your lunch out and we’ll compare!
        I’m on the B word diet. Only foods that starts with B.
        This isn’t my lunch. This is for throwing at people who annoy me with stupid personal comments.
        Hmm? I’m sorry, did you just say something judgmental?

        I’m at loss for good responses… ignore them?

      • To “That isn’t enough for lunch!” I would just say “Okay.” Let them continue the line of questioning if they must but you have no obligation to respond to their rudensss with an explanation. Alternatively “Lunch? No, this is for a project I am working on.”

        • Thanks! I think ‘okay’ is the winner. They all work at my company and could be a VP or such, so whatever said must be able to be interpreted as nice or neutral. I’m also thinking of ‘sure’ or ‘not, it’s not’..

          Shortie thanks too, yours are funny!

  10. One day at work I went and got a snack from the vending machine and an older man who was sitting nearby said “Better watch out or you’ll get fat.” In my shock I said “I hope so, I’m trying to gain weight.” and walked off. Who are these men that think we have any interest in their unsolicited opinions of us?

    • One of my classmates from undergrad was at an airport on her way to a family wedding in MN. While she was walking to her gate, wearing her party dress, some man who passed her said, loudly enough for her (and a few others walking close-by) to hear: “Too fat for that dress.”

      She was too much in shock to respond. When she came back from the wedding and told us about this, we (mixed group of male and female classmates) were all outraged on her behalf.

  11. In-House Europe :

    Interesting topic! I got voted “best smile” in high school and have been working since then to be LESS smile-y.

    On the other hand, it means that people at work aren’t intimidated by the in-house lawyer. And are happy to see that I can be a total b!tch when need be…

  12. This is a post that avoids the real issue: The societal double standard applied to women that requires them to be sweet and nonthreatening at all times.

    I’m shocked that a lawyer would remain in the same area as jurors outside the courtroom during a trial. Given the precautions taken to protect the jurors from influence, real or apparent, I don’t know why Kat stayed at the sandwich shop. I would have very politely excused myself and left.

  13. About the defensive posture while walking down the street: As a middle-aged woman who has been through the Italian experience and the New York experience, and gets called dear by men I can now happily wink at, I am with AMQ. New York is actually a pretty friendly town, and people do SAFELY nod or say hello if they happen to cross eyes on the train or street. But you only do it if you feel like it. So those who respond to civility with insults might want to consider relaxing – if someone wants to say something to you they should be able to, and you are free to ignore or respond. They will probably not hurt you either way.

  14. Ruby, in response to the presumptuous people who comment on your skimpy food selection, you could say, with proselytizing intensity, “It’s not a lot of food, but I prefer this to throwing up my entire lunch, which ALWAYS happens after I have a big meal.” Or you could try a plaintive, “The food is SO expensive here! I have a strict budget and already ate breakfast!”, followed by a teary, “I don’t know WHAT I’m going to have for dinner!” A less fraught, but sure to prevent future comments from that person, would be, “This doesn’t seem enough? I thought this was the right amount. Should I get a bigger serving? Given my BMI and the 1,121 calories I burn on Tuesdays because of my 45-minutes spin class, I thought this would be good. I’m trying to get more greens, because a very interesting study published in the November 2011 issue of Nature–have you read it?–made me think I could benefit from higher levels of methyl cobalamin…”

  15. data point: husband says ‘smile’ has never happened to him. and he has a serious/detached look. i couldn’t even count how many times it’s happened to me.

  16. I don’t think I have a natural bitchface, but I do have a naturally long face and jaw with a relatively small mouth. Let’s just say that more than once, as a kid, I took abuse from relatively nasty classmates – all girls! – for looking as though I was frowning or grumpy, all because I kept my mouth closed for four years thanks to an insane amount of metal braces. The combination of pursed lips with a big jaw was definitely not flattering, but I managed to forget the taunts for a while.

    That all changed in my mid-30’s. My grandmother, who had the same facial shape as mine, almost never smiled. Someone took a candid photo of me when I was unsmiling, with my mouth set, and oh my word, did I ever look like Granny Cranky. Ever since then, I consciously remind myself to relax my jaw and lips and let the corners of my mouth drift up slightly, if I’m working or or in a meeting or walking down the street. It’s not a goofy or submissive smile – I just don’t look so gloomy and horse-jawed.

  17. I had to trade my naturally Midwest Cheerful expression for witchface when I started living in big cities, or be constantly harassed by men. In my 20s and 30s I could hardly ever smile on the street or be followed for blocks. Of course, that meant various strange men would tell me to smile, but I just rolled my eyes.

    Now I’m 43, and I just love it. I can actually look pleasant on the street now, and if I’m not feeling pleasant, I look a little scary and people leave me alone. I’ve actually had to teach myself to loosen up a little when walking around the city because I don’t have to be so defensive any more.

  18. I’m so relieved — I thought this only happened to me! A friend and coworker saw me from a distance at lunch recently (walking with my fiance’) and said, “you didn’t look happy.” Believe me, I have never been happier in my life! Does anyone ever say this to men?

  19. I’m super late to this party.

    I have a total b!tchface. Not a bad-mood face, not a sadface, not an angry face. A stuck up snobby b!tchface. It a combination of perma-scowl, blank stare, light eyes, and hair a little too big and a little too much gloss for San Diego. My derma says Botox will fix the perma-scowl but I kind of like it. People stay out of my way. That may also be what I call my “purposeful gait” (fast walk in big heels).

    When I was commuting by train though, I’d get “smile!” or “where you rushing off too?” and occasionally “can I go too?” at least once a week by some dirtbag trashy dude. If these guys wouldn’t tell another man or an unattractive woman to smile, it’s objectification 100%.