Brilliant white teeth have become a symbol of wealth – Why?
I don’t know when I first started thinking about getting my teeth fixed and whitened, a business I’ve been considering for a few years now. Although not perfect, my teeth never bothered me until my early thirties, as if over time my idea of an acceptable smile had changed to no longer include mine. In 2018, when I saw Revenge of a Blonde for the first time since its release, I became aware of the evolution of the standards of the ideal smile. Reese Witherspoon, arguably one of the biggest and most beautiful stars of her generation, had yellow teeth. I was shocked, not because they were particularly bad, but because my brain had gradually become accustomed to seeing teeth getting whiter and whiter – to the point of being practically blinding – on screen.
The “American smile”, according to Dr. Alexandre Zappa of Zappa Dentist in Montreal, honestly bore his name. “It’s a decidedly American trend,” he says. “You just have to look at the stars on the European red carpets to realize that the relationship to smiling is completely different depending on where you are. It’s totally cultural. In the two decades since the release of this hit comedy, the artificially perfect Hollywood smile has become the norm, though achieving it is only possible for those with the money to pay for it.
“Humans have always viewed the smile as a symbol of beauty,” says Mary Otto, author of Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Unevenness, and the fight for oral health in America. “Even in the 1800s, the first dentists in this country wrote that the teeth brought radiance and symmetry to the face.” But it was the invention of the camera, which could not only capture but also reproduce the image of a person, that ultimately helped make teeth an important measure of attractiveness. The growing popularity of movies, with faces and mouths projected onto giant screens, has only increased the demand for perfectly white, straight smiles, first among celebrities and then among everyday people.
In real life and on screen – where a smile alone can tell a prince from a pirate – the condition of teeth is often closely tied to things like social status, education and cleanliness. And good teeth are an investment. “Although there are many social determinants of oral health, we often conclude that it is a personal responsibility,” says Otto. “Of course, you can brush your teeth or not, but given that dental and orthodontic care is hard to come by for a large part of the population, it’s far from a simple matter of choice.” Viewing dental health as separate from overall health further contributes to making a healthy, aesthetically perfect smile a privilege reserved for the wealthy.