Flip on the television or open a magazine, and there they are: perfect teeth. More than hair and definitely more than waistlines, Americans are obsessed with teeth. More than any country on earth, America fetishizes pearly whites.
From corporate boardrooms to cheesy clubs, from Hollywood to Porn Valley, good teeth, Americans think, make them attractive and give them confidence. Bad teeth are a deal-breaker. In America, perfect teeth aren’t just attractive and sexy, they’re the perceived norm.
This isn’t true everywhere. It’s not even true everywhere in America, but it’s the pervasive image and the standard. The obsession has its roots in American history, American technological progress and in America’s most glamorous creation: Hollywood.
But before we get into where this love of great teeth came from, let’s talk about why. That movie star smile doesn’t come cheap: whitenings can cost over $US600, and veneers easily cost into the thousands. All that money spent on something largely cosmetic. What’s the attraction?
Straight teeth look good.
White teeth look good.
Maybe you don’t think “normal” teeth don’t look bad. I have normal teeth, and perhaps you do, too! But being continuously hit with the perfect smiles of the Hollywood dream factory can set expectations. Think of the pressure! Even those who start out with normal teeth, whether that be Tom Cruise or Hilary Duff, get their teeth “fixed” at some point or another.
Some people, celebrities or not, are teased over their teeth. On a recent episode of The View, Lady Gaga said she was picked on as a kid. “All sorts of things. They said I had a big nose and I had buckteeth,” she said. “I had my teeth fixed. And I got thrown in a trash can…”
The country’s obsession with teeth started when the country itself started – with its first president, George Washington. Washington, who wore ivory false teeth and not wooden ones, started losing his teeth in his twenties – not as a result of poor hygiene, but due to the quality of health care at the time. Washington owned a toothbrush, not common during the day, and brushed daily. Tooth powder and mouthwash of the day destroyed tooth enamel, leaving Washington with only one real tooth during his 1791 inauguration.
Through the years dentistry improved. Fixing and examining teeth used to be a practice performed by blacksmiths, but it was America that began to take the lead.
“I think having the first formal college devoted to dental education—Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1840 – gave the US a ‘leg-up’ so to speak,” Scott Swank, DDS and Curator of Curator of the National Museum of Dentistry, told Kotaku. “There were others presenting oral health lectures in other countries, but, as an organized unit, the US was the first.” (The first school of orthodontics was also founded in America.)
But every American didn’t have a mouthful of white picket fences. According to Dr Swank, during World War II, a large enough number of recruits were turned away due to poor oral health that the US military began to instill dental education for the troops. Water fluoridation, thought to be a Communist plot during the Red Scare and still controversial today, began in the 1940s and aimed to decrease tooth decay.
In the prosperous years after the war, the number of dental products exploded. There was Pepsodent, Pearl Drops, and Ipana, all guaranteed to do great things for your teeth. The middle class had more disposable income. According to Dr. Swank, people also started to realise that, with proper care, they could keep their teeth their entire life, and began to pay more attention to oral care. Parents wanted to give their kids something that they could never had: better teeth. Braces and retainers became a right of passage. They also became objects of fetish, playing into the objectification of medical instruments.
Teeth became a status symbol. It was Hollywood that really solidified America’s aesthetic appreciation of teeth. With the advent of sound and the increasing use of the close-up, an actor’s mouth became more important.
In movies, the addition of sound and, later, colour drew attention to the mouth. A white smile, much like red lips, looks better on screen. Just as Michael Jackson would wear glittery, white socks to draw attention to his feet, a white smile drew attention to the mouth. “I think the American dental aesthetic standard had as much influence from Hollywood as any other reason,” said Dr Swank. “Europeans revered royalty. Americans revered actors and actresses as American royalty.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, cosmetic dental care took off as the procedures became not only safer, but more affordable. For kids, getting braces was already like getting glasses, and more and more adults who wanted to improve their smile got braces.
By the following decade, products for at-home teeth-whitening, previously done only by dentists, became wildly available, making what was once an in-office procedure available for more Americans. During the turn of the century, toothpaste sales actually slowed down, while whitening products picked up, garnering more retail space.
Not everyone in America has perfect teeth – not everyone in America even cares about perfect teeth. Some Americans are probably pretty annoyed that there’s a push for that perfect smile! There are celebrities famous for their dental imperfections – take Madonna and her gap teeth.
In the West, gapped teeth have long been a trope for lasciviousness as evident by the Good Wife of Bath in Canterbury Tales. Gapped teeth are sexy, and some patients in America are even paying top dollar for custom gaps in their porcelain veneers. These are actually a reaction to cookie-cutter cosmetic teeth. Think of them as perfect imperfections.
America’s dental IQ is the highest in the world, and the country has lead the way with the study of dentistry and even dental technology, like first putting toothpaste in tubes. Check out the endless array of dental products available at typical American supermarkets; they’re plentiful and cheap.
Teeth play an important part in the American aesthetic. Straight, white look attractive, they look healthy, and they look young – forgoing the stigma of other cosmetic procedures. In this crap economy, fewer Americans can afford pricey procedures, such as porcelain veneers, but the promise of brilliant smiles remains. White. Clean. Beautiful.
Top photo: Ethan Miller/Getty
What Is America’s Fetish This Week? is a regular, obsessive look at the trends and topics, from mainstream to niche, that catch America’s fancy. WIAFTW alternates bi-weekly with its sister column, What Is Japan’s Fetish This Week?