Botox has forever transformed the primordial battleground against aging. Since the FDA approved it for cosmetic use in 2002, eleven million Americans have used it. Over 90 percent of them are women.
In my forthcoming book, Botox Nation, 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 we use to express negative emotions: angry, bitchy, 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 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. Male politicians and CEOs, for example, are expected to look pissed off, stern, and annoyed. However, when Hillary Clinton displays these same expressions, she is chastised for being unladylike, as undeserving of the male gaze, and criticized for disrupting the normative gender order. Women more so than men are penalized for looking speculative, judgmental, angry, or cross.
Nothing demonstrates this more than the recent viral pop-cultural idioms “resting bitch face.” For those unfamiliar with the not so subtly sexist phrase, “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 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 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.
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 expression intensifies emotion, whereas suppression softens it. It follows that blocking negative expressions with Botox injections should offer some protection against negative feelings. A study confirmed the hypothesis.
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.
Dana Berkowitz is a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rogue where she teaches about gender, sexuality, families, and qualitative methods. Her book, Botox Nation: Changing the Face of America, will be out in January and can be pre-ordered now.