Associate Professor of Sociology
and Women's and Gender Studies
Louisiana State University
For the majority of Americans, Botox stirs up images of vanity-obsessed, narcissistic women, and for some critics, it symbolizes everything that is wrong with our oppressive contemporary beauty culture. Regardless of how we might each think and feel about Botox, the fact is that it has forever transformed the primordial battleground against aging. Since the FDA approved it for cosmetic use in 2002, eleven million women and men have already jumped on the Botox bandwagon, with over 90 percent of these users being women.
In my forthcoming book, Botox Nation, published by NYU Press, I argue that one of the reasons Botox is so appealing to women is because the wrinkles that Botox is designed to “fix”, those disconcerting creases between our brows, are precisely those lines that can cause us to look angry, bitchy, and irritated. Botox is injected into the corrugator supercilii muscles - the facial muscles that allow us to pull our eyebrows together and push them down. By paralyzing these muscles, Botox prevents this brow-lowering action, and in so doing, inhibits our ability to scowl, an expression we use to project to the world that we are aggravated or pissed off.
Sociologists have long speculated about the meaning of human faces for social interaction. In the 1950s, Erving Goffman (1967) developed the concept of facework to refer to the ways that human faces act as a template to invoke, process, and manage emotions. A core feature of our physical identity, our faces provide expressive information about our selves and how we want our identities to be perceived by others. Given that our faces are mediums for processing and negotiating social interaction, it makes sense that Botox’s effect on facial expression would be particularly enticing to women, who from early childhood are taught to project cheerfulness and to disguise unhappiness. Historically dislocated from the public sphere, from political power, and from leadership positions, women are penalized for looking speculative, judgmental, angry, or cross.
Nothing demonstrates this more than the recent viral pop-cultural idioms “resting bitch face” and “bitchy resting face.” For those unfamiliar with these not so subtly sexist phrases, “resting bitch face,” according to the popular site Urban Dictionary, is “a person, usually a girl, who naturally looks mean when her face is expressionless, without meaning to.” This same site defines its etymological predecessor, “bitchy resting face,” as “a bitchy alternative to the usual blank look most people have. This is a condition affecting the facial muscles, suffered by millions of women worldwide. People suffering from bitchy resting face (BRF) have the tendency look hostile and/or judgmental at rest.”
Resting bitch face and its linguistic cousin, bitchy resting face, is nowhere near gender neutral. There is no name for men’s serious, pensive, and reserved expressions because we allow men these feelings. When a man looks severe, serious, or grumpy, we assume it is for good reason. But women are always expected to be smiling, aesthetically pleasing, and compliant. To do otherwise would be to fail to subordinate our own emotions to those of others, and this would upset the gendered status quo.
This is what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983) calls “emotion labor,” a type of impression management, which involves manipulating one’s feelings to transmit a certain impression. In her now-classic study on flight attendants, Hochschild documented how part of the occupational script was for flight attendants to create and maintain the façade of positive appearance, revealing the highly gendered ways we police social performance. The facework involved in projecting cheerfulness and always smiling requires energy and, as any woman is well aware, can become exhausting. Hochschild recognized this and saw emotion work as a form of exploitation that could lead to psychological distress. She also predicted that showing dissimilar emotions from those genuinely felt would lead to the alienation from one’s feelings.
But, enter Botox—a product that can seemingly liberate the face from its resting bitch state, producing a flattening of affect where the act of appearing introspective, inquisitive, perplexed, contemplative, or pissed off can be effaced and prevented from leaving a lasting impression. One reason Botox may be especially appealing to women is that it can potentially relieve them from having to work so hard to police their expressions.
Even more insidiously, Botox may actually change how women feel. Scientists have long suggested that facial expressions, like frowning or smiling, can influence emotion by contributing to a range of bodily changes that in turn produce subjective feelings. This theory, known in psychology as the “facial feedback hypothesis,” proposes that the control of facial expression produces parallel effects on subjective feelings. Specifically, expression intensifies emotion, whereas suppression softens it. If, as the facial feedback hypothesis states, facial expressions not only convey emotion but also produce it, then it follows that blocking negative expressions with Botox injections should offer some protection against negative affect.
In 2009, Andreas Hennenlotter, a German scientist, and his colleagues conducted an experiment to test this very hypothesis. Hennenlotter had his female subjects, half of whom had Botox and half who served as a control group, imitate angry expressions in an MRI scanner and found that those with Botoxed-impaired brows were unable to do so. Compared with the non-Botoxed women, these women had significantly lower levels of activity in their left amygdalas, suggesting that making an angry face affects the amygdala, a key neural region for anxiety and anger, through feedback from the facial muscles and skin. These findings provide evidence for the importance of facial feedback on emotion and lend support to the theory that Botox can be used to lessen feelings of anger and anxiety. Taken together, this works point to some of the principal attractions of Botox for women. Functioning as an emotional lobotomy of sorts, Botox can emancipate women from having to vigilantly police their facial expressions and actually reduce the negative feelings that produce them, all while simultaneously offsetting the psychological distress of alienation described by Hochschild.
Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York and Toronto: Random House.
Hochschild, Arlie. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hennenlotter, Andreas, Christian Dresel, Florian Castrop, Andres O. Ceballos-Baumann, Afra M. Wohlschlager, and Bernhard Haslinger. 2008. “The Link between Facial Feedback and Neural Activity within Central Circuitries of Emotion—New Insights from Botulinum Toxin–Induced Denervation of Frown Muscles.” Cerebral Cortex 19, no. 3 (June 17): 537–542.