Something to Chew On
A look into the cosmetic world of teeth
The first time I went to a dentist appointment in Amsterdam, I was shocked when the dental hygienist peered into my mouth and told me my teeth looked perfect. After spending most of my life in the United States healthcare system, fearing trips to specialists for my uneven bite and jaw pain, I soaked in the validation. As much as a good checkup was a dream come true, I couldn't help but wonder if my rigorous bi-annual cleanings, whiting strips, and toothpastes had all been in vain.
Text: Islay Kilgannon
Image: Evita Belegri
This juxtaposition of perspectives led me to question how much of our ideas about health are socially constructed. Based on my own experience with dental care in the United States, I grew up thinking my teeth needed to look a certain way in order for them to work. When I left and started comparing my experiences to people who never worried as deeply about how white or how clean their teeth were, I learned that the perfect smile I knew so well was not necessarily the standard everywhere. Considering how looks are emphasized just as much as function, the line between aesthetics and healthcare is not as clear as we are led to believe. By delving into the complexities of the dental industry we come to see the ways in which our ideas about health and beauty are manufactured and molded.
Teeth can be regarded as one of the most visible signs of physical health and hygiene in Western societies. In an article titled ‘Straight White Teeth as a Social Prerogative’, Khalid and Quinonez explain that whiteness of the teeth can be associated with purity, and healthy white teeth may also be symbolic of youthfulness. While straight, white teeth may be the norm in Western societies today, this was not always the case. The rise of straight white teeth as the norm can be linked to the establishment of dentistry as an industry. Orthodontic practice became more common and accessible to the middle class in order to prepare soldiers for World War II, creating the foundation for a widespread industry. Outside of Western dental care, teeth have long been filed, blackened and modified, serving as symbols of cultural and religious values, power, beauty, and more.
While straight, white teeth are the conventional markers of health and beauty, teeth can also be representative of the avant garde. Think: the gap teeth and crooked smiles of famous actors and models or the golden and bejewelled grillz of the world’s most iconic rappers. Musicians like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s distinctive smiles lent well to their celebrity image. Uniqueness and unconventional beauty have boosted the careers of many models as well, highlighting the way that trends and ideals often circulate in extremes. This calls to mind an iconic moment from my childhood reality television consumption: on Season 15 of America’s Next Top Model, supermodel and host, Tyra Banks, had a contestant’s teeth shaved down in order to widen the distinctive space between her front teeth. The polarised nature of dental cosmetics can be reflective of how strongly the media and popular culture shift norms and conventions represented by our bodies.
Perfect, pearly whites may be the ideal, but curated smiles seek to highlight, celebrate, and also commodify unconventional beauty. Gold teeth and grillz of musicians and models have long been shown off for wealth and fashion. The mass popularisation of tooth accessories can be seen in the shift from grillz as an element of hip hop and African American culture to pop music, when Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry became wearers of some of the most expensive grillz ever created. Tooth gems, dyes, and tattoos are other, more niche, offsets of dental fashion. By going against normal dentistry practice, we come to see how much of dentistry blurs the line between function and fashion. By pushing these boundaries, people continuously go into more extreme lengths to achieve their desired look. Every new smile comes with a price.
Million dollar smile
In order to accommodate ever-changing trends and standards for dental beauty, medical tourism has become a key facet of the dental industry. For residents of North America, Mexico is the top destination for beautiful beaches and affordable medical procedures, most notably the city of Los Algodones, also known as ‘Molar City’ for its plethora of dental practices with cheaper prices. In an article for the Huffington Post, Jeffery Young explores the ‘dental mecca’ in order to understand how it came to be the attraction that it is today for people unable to afford dental care or insurance in their home countries. By contrast, the residents of Los Algodones themselves cannot afford the services their city is built around. Just like the social stratification present in the access to cosmetic procedures, the inaccessibility of dental care reflects a systemic lack of basic health care, especially when there is profit to be made. While this phenomena is notably relevant to the United States, the spread of trends and standards for dental appearance also coincides with the global spread of medical tourism.
A quick google search reveals a surprising amount of articles that detail Love Island contestant, Luca Bish’s trip to Turkey for a new set of veneers. The ‘cosmetic-isation’ of healthy teeth extrapolates already inaccessible medical procedures. As such, places like Turkey and Hungary have also become hubs for cheap dental implants and modifications. Medical tourism no longer results solely from a lack of dental insurance or absolute medical necessity, but as a tool for minor celebrities to perfect their image.
Medical and cosmetic procedures both shape and are shaped by the economic and social circumstances in which they exist. Veneers increase in popularity when the procedure becomes more accessible and publicly visible. While, simultaneously, the procedure is popular because straight white teeth are indicative of normative beauty. The search for so-called ‘perfect’ teeth is thus a complicated one. Fashion and function battle for priority in the dental industry, and ultimately create a system in which the myth of physical perfection allows us to take our own working bodies for granted.
In all of their shapes, sizes, and various materials, teeth are symbols of health, wealth, power and beauty. As much as they are subjected to beauty ideals and the limits of healthcare systems, they are a part of our anatomy that often goes overlooked. In the midst of trends and modifications, we should not forget that teeth are a functional - and essential- part of our body. As long as we are able to bite, chew and smile with them, they deserve to be considered perfect.