This Vancouver artist wants to paint your 'bitchy resting face'

"You should smile more." Like so many women, it's a phrase that Mandy Tsung has heard too many times to count.

Mandy Tsung's paintings prove there's no shame in not smiling

Mandy Tsung. Elin. Oil on gessoed paper. (Courtesy of the artist)

You should smile more.

Like so many women, it's a phrase that Mandy Tsung has heard too many times to count, and as the Vancouver artist can tell you, it's an experience that'll make you want to do anything but.

So in 2015, the 32-year-old artist began a series of paintings she calls the "Bitchy Resting Face Project."

Mandy Tsung on Instagram: "Painted a quick self-portrait today. [...] What's captured when it's just a woman and her camera is, perhaps, the most honest we can ever be." (Instagram/@mandytsung)

The women she depicts are total strangers — fans of Tsung's artwork who've been sending her more selfies than she can keep up with — and seven of these portraits are now on display at Vancouver's Hot Art Wet City gallery, part of the group exhibition Strong Female Character.

"A lot of men that I talk to have no idea what a 'bitchy resting face' is," Tsung tells CBC Arts. "Whereas women, if they haven't heard that particular term, as soon as I say, 'Has anyone ever told you to smile?' it doesn't matter if they're 16 years old or 90 years old, they're like 'Yes! I know what this is. I've experienced this.'"

To be fair, the term's only been out there a few years. In 2013, a Funny or Die video coined the phrase. It goes by other names — "Resting Bitch Face" or "RBF" being the arguably more popular version — even though that particular syntax suggests something altogether different from RBF's intended meaning. (Dogs are adorable — napping ones, even more so — but "resting bitch face" is, apparently, a scourge.)

By depicting women as we are naturally, I hope to erase the shame and negativity that we feel about simply being ourselves.- Mandy Tsung, artist

Scientific researchers have assured us that the effects of BRF are real; plastic surgeons have pitched solutions. This magazine listicle — among the top hits if you bother Googling "BRF" — offers six ways to eliminate it for good, including something called "face pilates," which we can only imagine creates six-pack abs where frown lines should be.

But here's the thing about BRF: to paraphrase every so-called sufferer, "it's just your face." 

If you have two eyes, a nose and a mouth — and you're capable of expressing emotions other than "happy" — you've got it. You're only afflicted, so to speak, if people expect you to be pretty and agreeable and complacent all the time — an expectation that, to the surprise of no one who's ever self-diagnosed themselves with BRF, applies largely to women.

"This is the most natural face a woman can make; her most honest expression," Tsung wrote in 2015, when she announced the project on her blog. "And yet it is so unsettling that strangers feel the need to do something to stop it. Perhaps it's because it makes it hard for them to enjoy her, to objectify her."

"By depicting women as we are naturally, I hope to erase the shame and negativity that we feel about simply being ourselves."

Since writing that blog post, Tsung says she's received upwards of 50 submissions from women all over. What began as a side project from her other artwork — work that, she says, "veers more towards the fantastical" — has developed into an ongoing dialogue.

To date, she's painted only a fraction of the photos she's received. "I made it an important point to paint a very wide variety of people, ethnicities," says Tsung, describing the series so far. As an artist who identifies as queer and mixed-race, she says, "I don't see myself represented in media at all, so this means a lot to me."

On Instagram, where Tsung shares paintings from the series, commenters are expressing what the project means to them, too. 

"Our resting bitchy faces are beautiful and should be seen. We are beautiful," writes one fan, @julesandlove.  "I don't feel alone now!" writes another, @abby.litchfield.

The comments are motivating Tsung to keep the project going.

"I've heard from people who say that because of this project, they've gotten to talk to their partners and other men in their life about what the project is about, but also gendered social pressures," she says. "It's been good for starting conversations, and it's an important thing to keep going. We definitely haven't solved anything as a society."

Check out some paintings from the Bitchy Resting Face Project.

Mandy Tsung. Ashley. Oil on gessoed paper. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mandy Tsung. Nikki. Oil on gessoed paper. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mandy Tsung. Cah. Oil on gessoed paper. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mandy Tsung. Kim. Oil on gessoed paper. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mandy Tsung. Marlo. Oil on gessoed paper. (Courtesy of the artist)
Mandy Tsung. Sophia. Oil on gessoed paper. (Courtesy of the artist)

Strong Female Character. Featuring Mandy Tsung, Bronwyn Schuster and Sherri Rogers. To Jan. 28. Hot Art Wet City, Vancouver.


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