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.)

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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