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By Judith Tutin
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (former lieutenant governor of Maryland and current research professor) recently chided folks for how powerful women are treated.
In her own experience, as a powerful woman from a political family, she was told she must wear rouge, stockings (even in 95 degree weather), heels (never flats), and not too many bracelets. Ridiculous, you say? Well, I agree.
Witness the recent clamor over Hillary Clinton’s smile, or more appropriately, her lack thereof. Then there was the grumbling about Harriet Tubman’s facial expression in preparation for putting her on the twenty-dollar bill. People are even suggesting women inject their faces with fillers to disguise their resting bitch face (or RBF). This makes me angry.
I’m not gonna lie; it’s personal … this demand that strong females to look sweet and pretty.
When I was a teenager and a young adult walking the streets of Manhattan, I was routinely told, “Smile, honey.” Even worse was the “it can’t be that bad.” (How it tempted me to conjure up something truly terrible so I could explain that IT WAS, indeed, THAT BAD.)
Of course now I know there’s a name for what my face does … all along it was just my RBF that provoked male passersby to try cajoling me into smiling. Like a pretty girl “should?” And countless women have experienced the same thing.
All of this tells me, as strong women, it’s time to stand up and be counted.
Your RBF, or any other facial characteristic, like big eyes (which I have, as well), your jewelry or your dress designer, are not problems women need to take on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying that facial expressions, personal style and attire have an impact on how we’re perceived by others at work and at play. I’m simply suggesting we not turn normal variations and personal choices into the characteristics upon which we base our opinions of powerful women (or into disorders requiring medical intervention).
Let’s not allow sexist judgments about how we “ought” to look become a reason to take extreme action. And if you doubt that it’s sexist, check out Tania Lombrozo’s piece about how much powerful women are supposed to talk compared with powerful men — less, of course.
That being said, it is worth asking yourself (fellow strong women) does your image reflect what you want it project to the world?
First off, be aware of how others perceive you. This is always a good plan, whether on a job interview, a date or just at lunch with coworkers.
The same way I noticed people widening their eyes or telling me to smile, ask yourself what kind of feedback you’re getting. Are people constantly asking if you’re bored (probable RBF) or if you’re mad at them (uber RBF)? Do people say they can never tell if you like them or not (variable RBF) or that you don’t seem enthusiastic/happy/etc (simple RBF)?
Are people always asking how old you are (because you’re dressing too young or sporting hair with shocking pink highlights), how much experience you have (because you appear to lack confidence) or if you’re feeling alright (because your cheeks need a little more rouge)? Do people seem to be fixated on your jewelry instead of your eyes (too much bling)? Are they fixated on other body parts (maybe too tight or low cut)?
Are there other comments or reactions you repeatedly get that fit this same mold? If any of these apply and you think they are actually affecting important things like career opportunities or relationships, then you may want to consider changing it up.
Here’s how to project the image of strong woman without caving to beauty standard pressures:
1. Seek help from your friends.
If you think you have a problem, enlist the aid of friends. Ask them what they notice about your appearance. People that know us are typically accustomed to our facial expressions and attire. Ask them to try to observe you as if they’ve just met you, and give you feedback on the impression you make. Then try a modification and get more feedback.
If your friends can’t or won’t do this there’s always your mother or a coach. Full disclosure requires me to admit that I am a mother and a coach. Both are loving, but brutally honest.
2. Give yourself a good ole pep talk in the mirror.
You know the movie scene where the actor is talking to herself in the mirror, getting ready for an important interview or a date? People really do that. Because it works.
Imagine yourself in various situations and see what you can see. For a slightly higher tech approach, use your phone and study the video. Consider modifying accordingly and observing the changes to determine if you’ve achieved the desired result.
3. Tell it like it is.
For RBF issues, let people (like students, co-workers, clients) know that, even though you congenitally don’t smile much, it doesn’t mean you’re not pleased. Explain that you will tell them how you’re feeling, in words, if it’s important. Give them permission to inquire about your intentions if they’re unsure.
I’ve had people prep me like that for the assault of their under-smiling faces and it’s helpful. People with eyes that don’t align or a lazy eye often do this same self-disclosure; while it may seem superfluous, it can reduce discomfort. If people comment on my Tom’s or Birkenstocks, I explain that I have problems with my feet and preserving them for running is more important than impressing you with my Jimmy Choos! (Ha ha, No, I don’t actually say it, but I think it.)
4. Fake it.
Reserve this for select situations only. Facing an important business meeting or party you may determine that you do not want your RBF or personal attire choices to create the wrong impression. For an hour, you can make yourself smile more than you’d normally smile.
Own a dressed-to-kill suit or dress and don’t be afraid to use it. But beware, the fake smile can be detected and if your new boss or date thinks they’re getting Armani and you turn up in Ann Taylor next time, then what? Make sure the smile goes all the way up to your eyes and the attire is reasonably sustainable.
Happily, no Botox or surgery is required for said changes.
You can look forward to most of these issues dropping off the map with time. Natural aging takes care of big eye syndrome with the slight droop of the eyelids. And after 45 or so, unless you’re famous, no one on the street really cares about what you’re wearing or whether you’re smiling.
Take heart though, as in the case of Hillary Clinton, neither her RBF nor frumpy pantsuits stop her from being one of the most powerful women on the planet.
Judith Tutin, PhD, ACC, is a licensed psychologist and certified life coach. Connect with her to request a free coaching call to bring more passion, power and purpose to your life.
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