There’s a photo of me holding my eldest just after we’d got home from the hospital. It’s supposed to be a lovely ‘motherly’ picture of the new mother (me) but I can’t even bear to look at it. I remember my brother saying it was a beautiful picture and me thinking, ‘But can’t you see just how unhappy I am? Look at my smile, I’m not smiling.’ Apparently he couldn’t.

I have been told many times over the years to ‘Cheer up!’ that I’m ‘…so much prettier when you smile!’ that I should, ‘Smile more’ and I’ve even been questioned as to why I don’t smile much. It’s been an ongoing one-way conversation often from people I don’t know because it bothered them that I didn’t do something they really thought I should.

I can be perfectly happy but not be smiling.

I’ve also been told many times over the years, often by people who didn’t really know me but the got to know me that I’m, ‘…different to how I thought you’d be.’ One mum of a pupil said, ‘We all thought you were stuck up but you’re actually alright,’ and while this could have been quite upsetting at the time I did take it as the huge compliment that she really did mean it to be.

Me and my not smiling seems to be an issue for people in that they just can’t work me out.

Over the years I’ve learned that I should smile to make other people happy. This seems an oxymoron type thing to be doing because, surely, smiling is something that comes naturally and you do it as response from sensory information that causes pleasure? But some autistic people smile because that’s what’s expected in that situation and it has nothing to do with how they are feeling.

I smile walking around the corridors at work but this is a huge effort and something that isn’t a natural thing for me to do. I smile in meetings because I know that it helps people understand me better and that they then might not think that I’m ‘stuck up.’ I’m now not surprised when people comment on the fact that they are surprised that I have a sharp sense of humour. It’s like the humour doesn’t go with the face.

I also find it interesting that this has been something that has been a constant throughout my life. It doesn’t happen often (I’m not talking every week) but it does happen and has done since I was young. Working in bars, as I did, where I was supposed to smile all the time really did confuse people so much that they felt they had to say something.

Since my diagnosis I’ve thought about certain aspects of me and smiling has been something I’ve thought about a lot. I’ve found out that smiling feels weird if I force it. My top lip twitches and I have to consciously think about pulling my cheeks up to make my lips form a smile. This happens at times where I’m not sure I should smile or whether the situation calls for a smile because I’ve learned that smiling just doesn’t come naturally to me.

I don’t ‘eye smile’ often. Again, over the years I’ve been told that I’m not photogenic or that, ‘Oh my gosh, that photo is actually a really lovely one of you,’ meaning that the previous lot they’ve seen hasn’t appealed to them in quite the same way. Someone commented that it was a surprise that I don’t photograph well because I was pretty (again, people told me) like there was something wrong with me that confused them. Surely a pretty person = a lovely photograph but we don’t seem to be getting this from you?

There’s even a phrase for women who don’t naturally smile: resting bitch face. Once again it’s a negative label that thrown at women who don’t appear to be ‘woman-ing’ enough or very well or to the person commenting’s liking. Woman should be smiling surely? And if they aren’t then, well, they are failing at being that perky happy women we all want to see.

Research (this article from CNN is really interesting) has been conducted using photos of celebrities who don’t often smile that are put through a computer and analysed. A study conducted in October 2015 by scientists Abbe Macbeth and Jason Rogers from Noldus Information Technology found that women who didn’t smile were often showing emotions despite not smiling. These emotions were, of course, negative and words such as, ‘contempt’, ‘worthless,’ and ‘deserving scorn’ were used to describe the non-smiling emotions behind the non-smiling.

David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington agrees that resting bitch face is a thing and calls RBF ‘Blank face’ and that those with RBF can be seen as ‘unfriendly.’

This is me I think.

Anthony S. Youn, a board certified plastic surgeon in Detroit, seems to be someone who thinks about the physicality of smiling and not necessarily the emotional intent behind it. He says that RBF can be hereditary and that, for some people, gravity and age can make a person’s face appear that they are frowning when, in fact, they aren’t.

It’s very reassuring to find that the ‘experts’ cannot agree on the reason for a neutral face.

I do smile though but I know that smile isn’t always a real smile. My husband can spot a real smile in a photo because he’ll say, ‘That’s a good one; you look really happy,’ and I can now see that’s because the smile is an eye smile (a ‘Duchenne’ smile) that has reached my eyes which does light up my face. So many other photos are just me going through the motions.

I think I have combination of things going on when I smile that results in my often neutral face. I don’t feel comfortable smiling when it isn’t something that’s totally spontaneous. I can’t easily ‘smile for the crowd’ so I just don’t smile. This confuses people because a) I’m a woman and the stereotype default is that I should be smiling a lot more than I do, b) I used to be pretty and pretty people should smile surely? and c) I was young and young pretty women really do have a lot to smile about and I was definitely bucking that trend. I’m very nearly 47 now though and it’s been a while since someone commented on my RBF. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much now I’m older?

I get that smiling is a universal way to show a feeling but I’ve learned, through myself and talking to others, that this universal way isn’t so universal as we might think. People learn to fake smile or not smile at all and both can be misleading as to their causes. Society places huge importance on women smiling and young women smiling especially and older men (because it was always older men) feel the need to comment. Maybe things will change. Maybe when the younger men become older men they won’t feel the need to say anything. Maybe RBF won’t be seen as something that is a negative but just something that is a thing like brown hair or blue eyes and that we shouldn’t read too much into it. Or maybe we’ll finally understand that those who are autistic may not smile because that’s how their brain works and we shouldn’t make decisions about them before we actually get to know them.

‘We thought you were stuck up but you’re actually alright.’

I am actually alright.

I just don’t smile that much.

And that’s okay.

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