Assignment 2 research – smiles in images

Originally I thought I would research the history of the smile in portraits. It’s been done really rather well by many other people though; in summary people didn’t smile because the exposures were too long (photography) or they had to hold the smile for ages (portraiture), plus they didn’t have good teeth. Holly Woodward, an OCA student on Identity & Place has an interesting and informative post on the subject here. Vernacular photography/snapshots have seen far more smiles. Smiles are forbidden/actively discouraged in official ID images such as passports/driving licenses. What I found more interesting to research was how social media and advertising use the smile, and what other facial expressions we’re seeing. It turned out to be a far larger area than I had imagined so what follows is a very shallow scrape of the surface.

Last summer I ran a photobooth at my daughter’s primary school disco. The youngest children gazed earnestly at the camera or grinned their little heads off. Older girls returned frequently and pouted much more than they smiled. Boys engaged and played. Walking down the local high street, the one where I’m regularly asked for smiles by strangers, I looked to see how many adverts and store posters featured smiles. Yes to pharmacies, funeral directors and budget clothes stores, no to pretty much everywhere else. The funeral ad had the biggest grins, from a middle aged couple who were presumably no longer worrying about how their loved ones would cope with organising their funerals. Looking through womens’ magazines, the biggest smiles were consistently on haircare product ads. Picking up the two exercise-wear catalogues that I’d received recently, the relatively cheap and cheerful one has at least one smile to each two-page spread in the womens-wear section (the men were let off smiling in the more active/frost-bitten shots). The more premium company offered two almost-smiling women in the entire catalogue, and they were in a photograph accompanying a piece on a re-launched workout “expect abs to be on fire. Tutus not necessary”. I found myself wondering if I’m prone to grinning or pouting when running/climbing/doing yoga, and more importantly, why on earth it should matter.

Bam Clothing and Sweaty Betty catalogue front covers, Autumn 2016

So do smiles sell? Do pouts sell? When would you use each? I don’t know. I feel that there may be some complicated algorithm at work involving the cost of the product, the nature of the product, the target audience, where the image is to be used and the aspirations of the brand. What I do suspect is that even though I have a perfectly good smile, I don’t understand the details of how smiles/not smiles are being used to sell to me, and I wonder what messages I am unwittingly sending.

Facial expressions on social media take me down a black hole of fury that I’m not sure I’m ready for yet. A couple of months ago the phrase “resting bitch face” came up on my Facebook feed. This article by Dana Berkowitz, came to me via Catherine Banks’ comment on Holly’s blog post above, and gave another perspective. It’s what women do when we’re not smiling and not actively monitoring how we appear to the world, apparently. Of course there is no straight male equivalent. If there was, it would probably be called something like “resting hero face” or perhaps “resting father face”, any occupation that would have earned the right not to smile momentarily. I’m not quite so annoyed by “game face” or “race face”, probably because they are used regardless of gender and often carry more positive ideas. However T-shirts declaring “Please excuse my resting gym face” annoy me.

Image from

When did we start apologising for how we look?  I mean, before we’ve even opened our mouths or finished our stretches? We all have the ability to convey such a broad range of emotions and thoughts via our faces that it seems very annoying that this range is reduced  to the simplistic stereotypes of smiling=good, not-smiling=bitch, and offering unnecessary apologies for not smiling.

Digging a little into the idea of a male equivalent I found that in December 2015 American charity chain Goodwill had to apologise to the rapper Kanye West for using his image in a training newsletter with the headline “Do you suffer from resting Kanye Face?” (Hardingham Gill, 2015) So perhaps it is not an entirely gendered concept…

Woodward, H. (2016) Smile please! Available at: (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

Berkowitz, D. (2016) Botox, gender, and the emotional Lobotomy – sociological images. Available at: (Accessed: 24 October 2016).

Hardingham-Gill, T. (2015) Goodwill apologises for telling employees to avoid ‘resting Kanye face’. Available at: (Accessed: 25 October 2016).





3 thoughts on “Assignment 2 research – smiles in images

  1. Stefan J Schaffeld October 25, 2016 / 12:13 pm

    Kate – with fascination and also with some emotional disbelieve I read your post. As I myself look a bit deeper now on gender in postmodernism I find your post quite personal and interrogative. I read also your references and find as a male the use of Botox quite unbelievable. Really gave me some new thoughts. I am looking forward to reading your assignment. All the best on a complex as well as intriguing subject. Stefan

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate October 25, 2016 / 12:42 pm

      Stefan – thank you so much for your comment. It is an amazing area isn’t it? That Botox reference was remarkable. I’m glad you have something news to think about. The assignment blog post should follow in the next day or so.


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