If you’ve ever experienced the misfortune of taking a photo of yourself that will end up on the internet, you have contemplated the weight of the following question: How should I move the muscles in my face to communicate my identity in the most socially correct way possible?
For many of us, the answer is clear: a smile, with teeth! And yet thanks to the proliferation of social media, dating apps, and technology that makes taking selfies infuriatingly addicting (curse you, portrait mode), human beings are now forced to pose for more photos than at any other point in history. And in that span of time, we’ve had to innovate.
Selfie trends are not new, exactly. Since the dawn of duckface in the mid-2000s — the act of pursing one’s lips and pushing them forward as if leaning in for a particularly theatrical kiss — we’ve replaced it with “sparrow face,” “migraine face,” belfies, T-rex hands, Bambi-ing, and that weird thing where teens cover their entire face with one hand, thus eliminating the purpose of a selfie in the first place.
Nearly all of said selfie crazes are performed by women, and we rarely discuss the ones percolating among men. But all along, there has been a single face that’s gone entirely unnoticed for the past decade-plus of its existence. It is this: raised eyebrows, and tightened lips.
This face is everywhere. Though I have surely done it at one point or another, it is especially prevalent among guys who are somewhere in between teenagehood and middle age, the period of life most fraught with questions and doubts about one’s place in the world. It is a face that expresses this uncertainty — it is both happy and sad, surprised and indifferent, hopeful and cynical, studied and spontaneous.
And for a very long time, I despised it. Every time I’d see a crush doing it on Instagram (a lot!) I would experience a deep, full-bodied pang of cringiness. To me, it always recalled the fraudulent “who, me?” poses of early 2000s pop-punk lead singers, an expression of nice-guyness reserved for dudes who would later ask you for nudes via MySpace.
Today, though, I think the face communicates a certain world-weariness that I find incredibly relatable. The bewilderment of the raised eyebrows is offset by a tautness in the mouth that reads as disappointment. The eyes, too, often have a certain deadness about them. Which, same!
According to body language expert Traci Brown, what the face is actually broadcasting is that the person doesn’t really want to be taking the photo in the first place. “There’s no smile — their eyes are kind of wide. They’re doing it because they have to, like they’re forced into it,” she told me over the phone recently. It makes sense, then, that men might be more likely to make a face that screams, “I am uncomfortable!” while participating in an act that is often coded as feminine.
When I showed her a photo of professionally annoying 20-year-old social media phenom Nash Grier making the face, Brown described it: “He’s not showing emotion like he really wants to be there. He’s like, ‘Ah, I gotta take this picture.’ When his eyebrows are raised, that shows emphasis on a certain point. So he’s just trying to emphasize that he doesn’t want to do it.”
To find out why so many youngish men who are not former teen Vine stars are making this face, I asked a variety of them. As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons, from a desire to hide one’s “jacked-up teeth” to an attempt to erase all the sadness from one’s face and create a facsimile of happiness. Spoiler: A lot of the reasons are sort of dark!
“First, it avoids crazy eyes — not all of us can smize like Tyra. Second, it’s hard to get a real smile (with teeth!) right without looking like a goober. It took me roughly 1,500 selfies during my trip to Peru to get my easy, breezy, and convincing selfie smile down. Third, it mimics the face you make when you see someone and think, ‘Ah, what a nice surprise!’ Last but not least, it’s exactly what comes up when you Google ‘Confident Face.’ Try it.” —Max Garelick, 26, works in finance
“You start off wanting to get a selfie where you look natural, happy, and attractive, but in every picture, your eyes are closed or you smile like a serial killer. After, like, five attempts, you just do the face so at least you have a shoot with your eyes open [and] you don’t look totally pissed off at the world, and call it a day. Guys just don’t have the patience to take a good selfie.” —C.J. Martinez, 26, producer
“Why do I make the face? A few reasons:
- When I force a smile, it looks like an alien trying to replicate a human smile for the first time.
- When I press my lips together, my eyebrows kind of naturally rise, which does give an added benefit of reducing my fivehead back down to a forehead.
- Unsure why I regularly include some sort of hand gesture. Thumbs-up, peace sign, hang loose, I’m also working on reclaiming the ‘OK’ hand sign. I think the hand just kind of helps fill out some of the negative space in the photo, or maybe it distracts the viewer from my face (another bonus).
“All of this is probably just made up to make myself feel good and I do it totally subconsciously.” —Kyle Jackson, 29, project manager
“This is a face that says, ‘I’m kind of fun!’ but still reminds you, the viewer, ‘I am a tough, serious dude, and I barely have time to engage in such trivial things as selfies.’ It’s the pictorial equivalent of putting exactly one foot in the pool, so I’m participating but not vulnerable in any real way, because who cares about looks? I need to grow up.” —Alex Kirshner, 24, college football writer
“This face is a male equivalent of the duckface. It’s an entry-level, go-to, easy-to-pull-off pose for a man to use in a photo without much effort or risk. I usually choose not to make this face in any photo taken of me. Instead, I opt for a laugh/smile that instead makes me so squinty it looks like my eyes are closed because I’m blinded by the sun. Also not a good look, but it’s really all I’ve got. I think bros make this face because they believe it gives off a combination of mysteriousness and quirkiness at the same time. The raised eyebrows signal, ‘Oh, wow, you caught me off guard! Ha! Oh, a photo of me?’ which deep down is a way for the subject to justify the fact that they’re taking a selfie. The smirk is like, ‘I’m too cool for school but I’ll still take this selfie because hey, I’m a fun guy.’
“Sidebar: For some reason, I think it’s fairly accepted that women take selfies — but if you catch a guy trying to get a fit pic off in a public bathroom, it usually makes everyone feel awkward. I believe we should work together to reverse this trend and support the dude that’s just trying to flex a bit to feel good about himself.” —Max Levitzke, 27, works in solar energy
“I don’t usually take these types of selfies very often, but I feel like what it’s communicating is, ‘I wanna send you a pic of me smiling, but I don’t want to fully smile because that’s too cheesy, so here’s a pic of me with somewhat of a half-smirk so you know that I’m excited about what you’re talking about but don’t want to come across as overly excited.’ I know that probably doesn’t make any type of sense, but the male brain can be strange. I feel like I’ve sent these type of selfies usually through Snapchat so they can disappear. Also maybe men just aren’t good at taking selfies? I know personally I’m quite trash at it.” —Joe Ali, 25, shooter/editor
“Some combination of shyness and plain old male lizard brain command me not to smile. It’s something I’ve increasingly tried to override — smiling is good and makes everyone feel good! — but my instincts don’t want me to. I guess smiling feels like it’s too much? Or maybe I’d just feel exposed. I’ve got pretty jacked-up teeth.” —Seth Rosenthal, 29, video producer
“Ugh, I have made the selfie face you are referring to but I’m not sure I ever realized I was doing it until now. Add it to the pile of things to be insecure about. I think it happens a lot more when you have to take it for a dating app. I think the raising of the eyebrows is meant to, like, soften your face? Like, eyebrows up means ‘hey! :)’ and eyebrows down or neutral means ‘hey.’ As far as the tight-lipped thing, that’s just dudes not wanting to smile because it makes you vulnerable or whatever.” —Ryan Simmons, 30, video producer
“I feel like this may be inherently a look with a hint of shame among us men, because in the traditional sense, dudes aren’t even really supposed to be taking selfies, are we? When the selfie really started taking off in the Myspace 2009-ish days, duckface was all the rage thanks to the mirror pic and there was no way in hell 16-year-old me was going to be caught dead doing duckface (because that was for girls, of course).
“Fast-forward a decade or so and maybe I’m still a little held back by the faux machismo prepubescent me subscribed to in regards to the selfie. Besides that, I think the face is also pretty neutral. I’m not gonna frown in a selfie because that would look dumb. But then again, if I flash some toothy grin in a solo selfie, that looks kinda dumb too. I mean, how happy am I really supposed to be about taking a selfie? The tightening of the face muscles you have to do to make the face in question here also comes with, like, a 5 percent smirk, almost a hint of a hint of a smirk. I’m too cool for school (and by school, I mean emoting in a tangible way).” —Richard Johnson, 25, sports writer
“Something to do with the perceived masculinity of selfies. Smiling naturally would imply that I enjoy this teenage girl ritual way too much. The eyebrow raise and nonchalant smirk gives the appearance that I don’t care about my appearance and that I didn’t retake this five or 10 times — even though they did.” —Zach French, 32, business development manager
“I think (generally) guys are less comfortable taking photos than girls. But I think everyone has a game plan when it comes to photos. Instead of having to wing it, you just have your go-to because you generally know the outcome, the same way girls do the cross leg/arm bent on the waist/lean-in formula. (I tend to do this open mouth grin thing like I’m doing a big laugh.)
“Guys also potentially feel a certain vulnerability, or perceived vulnerability, when it comes to photos. Like, it’s uncool to enjoy being photographed. So the more you downplay it, the more comfortable you feel (like how guys follow everything they text with ‘haha’ or ‘lol’ in text, even when they’re not even attempting to be funny). —Mark Topel, 30, senior copywriter
“I would say it’s the equivalent of unnecessarily crumpling and eating a journal entry just because someone walked in the room. You need to hurry up and get all that deep sadness out of your face before the camera goes off. Is this what happiness looks like?” —Mike Imhoff, 30, senior director
As I expected, men have a lot of very different reasons for performing this particular facial expression. All of them, however, support the idea that being a person with a face who sometimes has to post photos of that face on the internet can be a very fraught activity — even for men. Who knew!