The photographer at CVS told Quintana Carter to make a “neutral face.” Not smiling, not frowning, just expressionless. This was, after all, a photo for a new passport, just in case she decides to leave Boston on her first post-pandemic vacation.
Carter, a 29-year-old project manager at a cancer-research institute, posed as she was told. But once her image showed up on the screen, the photographer took one look and asked if she’d like to retake it. Carter politely obliged. Once more, she says, “I just kind of let my face sit there.”
Later that day, Carter took her new passport materials to the post office. “The woman who was looking to make sure I had everything saw my photo and laughed,” she says. Carter, a good sport, laughed along and explained what the photographer had instructed. “But she said, ‘This isn’t a neutral face! This looks like you actively want to murder somebody,’ ” Carter remembers. “‘This is going to get you extra screening at airports!’ “
Carter has been dealing with this kind of thing for most of her life. In photos as a kid, she could always be relied on to look miserable. As an adolescent, classmates she barely even knew thought she hated them. And as an adult, she’s been told countless times – by other riders on public transit, by passersby while she waits for an Uber – that she should smile or cheer up.
But her passport-photo misadventure was the first time in more than a year that Carter had had to think about the problem known (crassly and delightfully) as “resting bitch face.” Wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, Carter says, meant her “apparently murderous” facial expression temporarily disappeared from her list of daily concerns.
Women like Carter have enjoyed a 14-month respite from the murmurs, raised eyebrows and directives to “Lighten up,” or “Gimme a smile!” – mostly from men. Now, though, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent announcement that fully vaccinated individuals can mostly ditch their masks, glowers and frowns are set to make their return to society – and so are the annoying-at-best, threatening-at-worst comments that people often feel entitled to make about them.
Paige Mandelare-Ruiz, a 29-year-old scientist in Fort Pierce, Fla., remembers vividly that a few years ago, a man stopped her at a grocery store, told her to smile and then wouldn’t leave her alone while she tried to keep moving. Mandelare-Ruiz was sick with a bacterial infection at the time, and “I already wasn’t in the best of moods,” she says. The encounter only worsened her day.
So for women like Mandelare-Ruiz, a year’s reprieve from uninvited demands for smiles has been liberating. “It’s been nice that I don’t have to worry as much about being approachable,” she says. “Not having those moments of strangers telling you to smile is lovely,” adds Carter.
“It’s, you know, sort of great,” says Michael Bower. Yes, even the occasional man finds himself receiving this kind of input. Bower, a 52-year-old graphic designer in Glastonbury, Conn., has been told by family members, friends, his husband, and – years ago – other singles at gay bars that in his expressionless moments, he “radiates disdain.” (“Totally unintentional,” he adds cheerfully. “I’m a very nice person!”) The past year has given him a welcome respite from quickly editing his facial expression for the benefit of every person he passes on the sidewalk while he walks his dog. “You do the little head nod, and that’s all you have to do.”
Not everyone found masks to be a panacea. Ruth MacBean, 64, owns a catering business in Burke, Va. Sometimes when she serves guests at parties, “people are drinking, and they’ll, you know, tell me to smile. And then I’m just – I’m really embarrassed.” But her “RBF” is mostly above the mouth, she laments. A mask is no help. “It doesn’t hide the furrow of my brow.”
Requests for smiles may seem harmless to some, but they’re often considered to be in line with catcalling, unwelcome gestures and other kinds of harassment, says Kimberly Fairchild, an associate professor of psychology at Manhattan College who researches street harassment. In the worst cases, commands to smile can escalate into scarier situations. But even when a command to smile is just that, Fairchild says there can be a “cumulative effect” if it happens often, as it can in urban areas. “Those things can accumulate in terms of more self-objectification. They can accumulate in terms of making women feel uncomfortable and unsafe being out in public places.”
For Trish Wend, a 62-year-old painter from Ridgefield, Conn., the break from all of that was “so freeing, and so powerful” that it prompted her to make a larger life change. She’s fielded remarks about her stern-looking face (from many men and exactly zero women, she clarifies) ever since she started working as a bartender and a lifeguard during college. She adopted a strategy early in life of simply deadpanning, “I am smiling.”
For Wend, the pandemic marked the first time in decades she hadn’t felt any pressure to adopt an obsequious, apologetic smile when asking for help at the grocery or the hardware store or the car dealership. For women, “the smile sort of neutralizes you. It implies that you’re more pliable, you’re not going to give them trouble,” she says.
With the smile suddenly out of the equation, Wend says, “it made me go a step further. I decided to not be the type of person who asks for something. Instead I would tell them what I wanted. I would say, ‘I need this.’ ” She plans to keep doing so even when she quits wearing a mask.
Carter, meanwhile, is already having to relearn all the reflexes she used to rely on when she took walks in her neighborhood near Fenway Park.
Lately, “there’s a lot more outdoor stuff happening, and places are crowded because it’s 75 out. And I’ve had to remind myself, like, ‘Oh, you cannot make that face.’ You have to really think about it,” she says. Already, she misses the “total freedom” of being able to move through the world unbothered.