All my life, people have shouted, “Cheer up!” at me, but I was born with a glum face

In the recent viral video footage of a woman being repeatedly catcalled as she walks around New York, the first comments we hear addressed to her are: “Smile! SMILE!” It’s an order, an expectation.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

A few weeks ago, the band Young Fathers won the Mercury Prize and as I watched them go up to collect it, all of them sporting expressions of earnest, furrowed-brow solemnity, I couldn’t help smiling. The next day, they were quoted in the Guardian defending how they hadn’t looked happier: “There are these expectations that they [the media] need you to be smiling . . . a happy-to-be-here kind of vibe. But we deserve to be here. We’ve worked hard . . . You don’t want to smile every day. There’s a time and a place for that.”

I understood this – it was a stance I adopted throughout most of my career, almost never smiling in photos or videos. Like many non-smilers I was partly self-conscious about my teeth but also aware of the way that smiling made me look more friendly and more ordinary. Less committed. In the rules of rock’n’roll, the pout and the glare are the correct facial expressions, establishing your worth, your seriousness, above all your cool.

Fashion, too, is a great respecter of the non-smile, as worn this season and every season by Victoria Beckham. The frown makes her face look thinner but leads to accusations of her being miserable, as if she can never allow herself to enjoy anything. “I smile in family photos,” she has said and, in making this distinction between the public and the private, she is touching on an important point about the smile, especially for women.

In the recent viral video footage of a woman being repeatedly catcalled as she walks around New York, the first comments we hear addressed to her, with increasing aggression, are: “Smile! SMILE!” It’s an order, an expectation. A woman’s smile is meant to be welcoming and grateful. It displays acquiescence. Above all, it says: thank you.

In Victoria Beckham’s scowl, we could see, instead of a misery-guts having no fun, a woman saying, “F*** you, I won’t smile when you tell me to” – her control over her face demonstrating her status and independence.

But what we need are more options. Enter Caitlin Moran with her “Muppet face”, the joyful, overexcited gurn she employs in photos. Writing recently about why she does this, she explained that for her it is about opting out of either the “serenely impassive” fashion face, or the demurely pretty smile. Instead, she says: “It is my intention to look like a scruffy, 39-year-old Muppet, or a clown, because I would rather cut off my head than try to look attractive in a photo. I don’t want to enter that competition.”

Of course, she does mostly look attractive – she has fabulous features – but at least she’s choosing her own expression. All my life I’ve had people shouting, “Cheer up!” at me, possessing as I do one of those faces that naturally fall to rest looking glum. When I was taken out in my pram as a baby, passers-by would peer inside and ask with concern, “Oh, dear, what’s the matter with her?” “Nothing,” my poor mum would reply. “That’s just her face.”

Later on, years of melancholy press shots led fans to believe that I was permanently serious and sad. Humourless. Perhaps a bit of an ice maiden, reserved and aloof. On the Everything but the Girl website we asked, “Who would play Tracey in the biopic?” The most popular answer was “Kristin Scott Thomas”, which made me roar with laughter.

Being on Twitter gave me the opportunity to show it’s possible to be a “serious artist” without always having to be serious. Which brings me back to Young Fathers and their determination not to “play the game” by looking happy to have won an award.

Despite all I’ve said about smiling being a complicated business, the one thing I have learned is that as you get older, you become more grateful for any moments of recognition, achievement, or happiness. You can’t take anything for granted or assume that it’s your due and you have no idea when good fortune might strike again. So if that was me winning something, I’d want to make it clear that I was happy. I’d dare to smile. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble