When I arrived in Cincinnati at age 21 to start my master’s degree, I had not yet cultivated a high-quality bitch face. I didn’t even know it was important to have one! I’d never lived in a big city before and I was SUPER DUPER excited. The possibilities were endless, my bright future stretched out before me, etc. etc.

I dropped my suitcase off in the hundred-year-old house where I would be living and while I was there I really worked up my “holy shit everything is amazing” face. I was practically having an orgasm over getting to sleep in a house that back in Florida would have been a museum. (I finally got to cross the velvet ropes!!!)

Since none of my roommates were around, I ventured out to explore my awesome new urban environment… much as naïve baby Bambi frolicked recklessly into the open meadow.

I had a vague idea of where the university was, so I meandered in that direction. I came upon Vine Street, noting the name without an inkling of foreboding. I was unphased by the fact that I was the only white person anywhere besides the homeless guy sprawled out on the sidewalk strumming his beat-up guitar, a tin can placed out in front of him for tips. That is SO cool and different, I thought to myself. I bet he has such interesting stories to tell!

So, yeah, only white girl. That totally shouldn’t matter except that, back then, in that part of town (I have no idea how it is now) it did matter. I smiled warmly at every person I passed, indifferent to the “Girl, what the fuck are you doing down here” expressions on the face of every person walking by. I gazed with curiosity at the shop fronts, wondering if there was a post office nearby, or perhaps even a cozy little coffee shop where I could learn to like coffee.

I felt like dancing, to tell you the truth. The thump of bass emitted from just about any direction you listened. Low riders slithered by, 12-inch subwoofers humming notes almost too low for human consumption. Hmm, I wonder what rap artist that is? I thought to myself. I beamed amity at all these passersby, because, well, it’s always nice to be friendly!

As I continued to stroll aimlessly, a large SUV pulled into a parking spot a few feet in front of me. I thought nothing of it and enjoyed timing my footfalls with the savage bass beat of the vehicle’s music. Oh, how fantastic, I thought, I’ve come here to study classical music but I still get to listen to rap. I passed the vehicle without looking at the passengers within.

“Hey girl!”

I kept walking.

“HEY, GIRL.”

I turned hesitantly, prepared to roll my eyes. Flirts, surely. Typical guys, teehee!

“Hey girl. You wanna take a ride?”

As if I would do that. PUH-lease! I almost rolled my eyes. The passenger of the SUV smiled at me, but only with his mouth. His eyes were dead. He had a shiny gold grill, which he sucked at menacingly, somehow smiling around the sucking action. The hairs on the back of my neck went ramrod straight.

“No thanks,” I said politely, my smile waning. I looked behind me. The street was empty now except for the man playing guitar.

“Come on,” he said, matching my politeness. “It’ll be fun. I’ll let you suck my dick.” There were others in the SUV, too. They all thought this was pretty hilarious.

I don’t know why I said what I said next, why I thought it would matter. “I… uh, have a boyfriend.”

He laughed heartily. “I’ll kill your fucking boyfriend!” He held up a pistol to demonstrate how he would kill my boyfriend.

I took a step backwards. He was roughly 15 feet away from me. I wanted to run, but was afraid to turn my back on him. Plus, it seemed like if I ran I might excite him somehow. Like how when a dog sees a squirrel run and can’t help but chase.

Another step backwards. A man came out of the store behind me and walked casually in the opposite direction of me, unaware of the fact that I was freaking the hell out. I could have gone into the store. But who would protect me there? I liked it better out in the open.

But I didn’t have to make any more split decisions, because the SUV suddenly pulled out of the parking spot and drove away, all the men inside laughing at me as they drove by.

I don’t like to say I brought it on myself. No one asks to be harassed, assaulted, raped, or whatever disgusting scenario could have come out of my dumb-happy stroll down the sidewalk. I’m a feminist, and I don’t like that blame-the-victim shit. But I was naïve. I walked with a giddy smile right into a world that was nothing like my own, where all the rules were different. I might as well have painted a target on my back.

From that moment, every time I had to cross Vine Street, I changed the way I walked and how I set my face. I learned to walk with an angular, heavy gait (for the love of God, no hip-swaying) and I scowled at everyone in a way that I hoped said, “Don’t fuck with me or I’ll squash your eyes into your brain with my thumbs.” I was never bothered again.

Could it be coincidence that I was never harassed again after that day? Absolutely. (But I doubt it.) And I’m not telling women to screw up their faces in an ugly grimace everywhere they go because otherwise they’ll be attacked. I am saying it’s wise to be aware of your surroundings and to recognize that the rules of the world you’re used to don’t necessarily apply everywhere else. There are places where a woman is perceived by many as mere prey. Of course we all want to live in a world where a woman can walk down the street wearing nothing but a naïve smile and have that not be reason enough to be harassed or attacked.

But until that Utopian world exists, I have found the cultivation of a kick-ass bitch face to be helpful.

Young and sexy woman walking in the streets at night

Has anything like this ever happened to you? Do you think I’m full of shit? (I know I’m not; I lived it. But you’re free to have an opinion, obviously.)

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17 Comments

  1. When I was 20 a girlfriend and I took the train from her parents house in upstate New York into Grand Central Station. This would have been about 1988 maybe? I lived in a suburban town, and even more removed my parents didn’t live in town. I grew up riding horses to my friends house, or riding my bike until the sun began to set. As we left the train we both DESPERATELY had to pee so we took off through GCS looking for a restroom and I tripped–literally–over a homeless person sleeping in the hallway. I will never, ever forget the man removing the newspaper from his face to scowl at me as I stammered out an apology and my friend desperately tried to pull me back down the hallway away from the man who was now standing up. Suddenly I no longer felt the need to use the restroom, or do anything that would ever leave me vulnerable again. Ever. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore!!

    • Oh dear. Yeah you never know with homeless people. Sometimes they’re awesome and sometimes they’ll literally bite you.

    • There were good parts. I’d never seen racial tension like that, though. It was pretty intense. And then I moved to Detroit!

  2. OMG…HOW SCARY! I also had a gun pulled on me once when I was about 18 or so. I DID have a bitch face, though. I am lucky I didn’t get myself shot. Ugh. Sometimes I wonder how I survived myself!

    • Holy crap. Yeah the guy didn’t point the gun at me. He just held it up to show me. It was something I thought only happened in movies. Craziness.

  3. Though bitch faces are cultivated better through time and experience, I find that high school is a wonderful place to begin one’s education in such an expression. My high school wasn’t the best around, and though it was definitely not the worst in our country’s history, fights happened and people in general were jerks. I learned that a mean look can stop a fight before it begins, and the best example was a female that bumped into ME, proceeded to turn around with a scowl to say something about it, saw my bitch face, and turned back around without starting any garbage.

    The downside at starting so young is an almost permanent bitch face, as seen in basic training when my DS asked me; “V, why do you looked pissed off all the time?” It is now a chore to *not* have a bitch face, and since I live in suburbia I must now work to reverse all the years of hard work and effort I spent on my look. Ah, well, that’s life for you.

    • I was told several times in high school, “when I first met you, I thought you were such a bitch!” I think I might have overcompensated in college and smiled too damn much. haha

      • I’m told that ALL the time now! I guess I don’t smile much, but it’s not intentional. I don’t even realize it.

  4. When I was 17 I was an exchange student to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I grew up in small town whitey-ville. One day while I was waiting in a dark doorway (how stupid was I?) of a church for my American friend I met on the flight there, I heard, “Give me your ring.” It was nothing more than costume jewelry, hardly worth the materials it was made of. Before I could even think, I heard myself say, “No.” He turned away and left. (I must have been wearing a bitch face!) Man, I was so naive! But of course, I knew it all and had no fear. If you sent me there today, I’d probably be afraid to get off the airplane. I did so many stupid things in those 6 months. But surprisingly nothing horrible happened to me. And I made many memories.

  5. This is great advice. And holy crap how scary. I also use my bitch face when I’m out with my daughter and it looks like someone might want to get unsolicited advicey on me. I hope it says, “your nonsense isn’t welcome, thanks.”

  6. I was having a version of this conversation with my (young-for-11) 11 year old son earlier this week. I had to bring him to work with me, and I noticed as we were walking to and from my office, he was looking with great interest at everyone who passed by, including the sort of sketchy looking ones. I tried to warn him about that–that making eye contact with people whose appearance indicates they might not be too tightly wrapped isn’t the safest thing to do. It’s hard because where we live, we know EVERYONE, and everyone is someone’s mom, sister, soccer coach, friend. It’s not six degrees of separation, it’s two. But then we cross the water, we’re in a big city, and it’s not so safe. Unfortunately, my kids have very little opportunity to learn street smarts.

    • Ugh. Yes! Predators choose easy targets. We all (even boys) have to be careful not to paint ourselves as targets. It’s a sad truth.

  7. I tend to be the smily kind of girl. I apparently have a friendly face that encourages conversations with strangers as I’m always hearing people’s life story no matter where I am.

    However, I do have a bitch face that I can slip on pretty quickly. I think I’ve mastered the Squinty Side Eye Don’t-Make-Me-F@ck-You-Up look that I tested out in high school but mastered in college.

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