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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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Grin and Bare ‘Em: Bad Teeth

I saw Anchorman for the first time the other night, and after my hysterics re: the jazz flute scene had subsided, I took note of the close-up of Will Ferrell’s mouth. Here’s a picture:

So, Will Ferrell doesn’t have the greatest teeth. The shot was played in close-up here for comic effect, but those are his real teeth (as opposed to Mike Myers’ in Austin Powers), and I immediately harrumphed over the fact that a female performer—even a comic one—could never get away with not “fixing” her teeth and still be successful.

The internet shows me I’m wrong. I mean, look at all the female celebrities out there with “bad teeth.” MadonnaLauren HuttonAnna PaquinJessica Paré! And yet, notice anything here?And about those gap teeth: I’d always thought they were sexy, and I’d privately credited this to my occasionally offbeat taste (I have a thing for adults with scars from teen acne, for example). But it turns out I’m not progressive here so much as I’m regressive—back to the Middle Ages, when women with gapped teeth were seen as lustful. Given the morals of the time, lustful was hardly synonymous with sexy-as-attractive, but it’s on pace with sexy-as…sexual, I suppose. A gap-toothed smile is also considered attractive in some parts of Africa, and in 1987 Les Blank made a short documentary called Gap-Toothed Women, which is about…gap-toothed women. Despite showing up repeatedly on collections of “celebrities with bad teeth,” there’s nothing wrong with these women’s teeth, except that they have a gap up front, a far cry from Ferrell’s crooked, yellowing bottom choppers. Sure, alongside these gap-toothed women, various slideshows cite Jewel (snaggletooth!) and Kirsten Dunst (baby teeth!), but assuming that the two of them even qualify as having “bad teeth,” are there any other female celebrities with significant orthodontic problems? (Amy Winehouse certainly did, but her dental condition was linked to the drug addiction that killed her; sadly, the effect was part of her image.) 

It’s hardly a surprise that appearance standards are higher for women in this regard, given that they’re higher in pretty much every regard. Will Ferrell, Steve Buscemi, Seal, Morgan Freeman, Ricky Gervais—all successful (though none known for their good looks), all with teeth in worse shape than any of the female celebrities with supposedly “bad teeth” out there. What’s more surprising is that anyone in the public eye has the teeth nature gave them. Cosmetic dentistry has skyrocketed in recent years among the hoi polloi, let alone people who make their living in part from their faces. And while the same names crop up over and over again on lists of “bad celebrity teeth,” when you look at the list of celebrities who once had “bad teeth” but got them fixed, it’s all over the place: Tom Cruise! Miley Cyrus! The Beckhams, David Bowie, Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron, Michael Douglas, Celine Dion, Chris Rock, Nic Cage. I’d go on, but you get the point.

But that’s Hollywood, where people make their living off their looks, even if those looks fall outside of mainstream attractiveness. For the rest of us, though, changing our “bad teeth” isn’t necessarily out of reach—it’s expensive, sure, but depending on what you get done, not unthinkably so. And the benefits are plenty: Tooth decay and discoloration are associated with appearing less competent, less intelligent, less well-adjusted, and less satisfied—regardless of gender. (That’s not even touching the relationship between dental care and class; just think of how often funky teeth are used for comedic effect to poke fun at “trailer trash” in sketch comedy.) But there’s a paradox here: While men have been seeking cosmetic dentistry in greater numbers in the last few years, women still make up the majority of patients, even though the benefit they receive from their newly pearly whites isn’t greater than it is for men (though it’s impossible to measure the cumulative effect that dental work has on overall appearance, which has greater benefit for women socially). Of course, that’s true of dentistry in general: Women are likelier than men to seek preventative dental care, which makes me wonder if the actual “need” (as it were) for cosmetic dentistry is less overall for women, meaning that the playing field is inherently uneven as far as the benefit actually received. That is: If men have worse teeth overall, the expectations might generally be lower for them, meaning that average teeth on men are perceived as being “better” than average teeth on women. (I’m hypothesizing here; couldn’t find any numbers.)

Besides the general ethos skewing toward everyone-should-look-like-Kim-Kardashian-at-all-times, there’s another reason for the rise of cosmetic dentistry: patients as consumers. Health care in the States has increasingly been painted as a series of consumer choices, not a utility or basic human need. Even Obamacare, which makes some much-needed changes in our system, relies upon the idea that patients will treat their health insurance as a consumer choice. Couple this view with the fact that cosmetic dentistry really is a consumer good, at least more so than your annual tooth cleaning, and suddenly cosmetic dentistry shifts from being seen as something only the rich do to being seen as something that’s on the same scale as checkups, cleanings, or orthodontic care. (If you’re like me—that is, lacking dental insurance don’t even get me started—that illusion is only magnified because all payments are out-of-pocket.)

In fact, patient-as-consumer might be another reason that women make up the majority of cosmetic dentistry patients: Women tend to be better informed than men about their health, and when we’re talking about procedures that are framed as consumer choices, that effect is exaggerated. Show me the last time Esquire ran a guide to the best ways to whiten your teeth, eh? And the effect is cyclical: Dentists are encouraged to pay attention to their office aesthetics because “[women] notice everything,” the idea being that the most closely a cosmetic dentistry outlet models a medi-spa, the more the patient-consumer feels cared for specifically as a consumer.

I’ll be honest: Reading up on cosmetic dentistry was a little hard for me. My teeth are perfectly healthy in the sense that I have minimal cavities and erosion, but cosmetically they’re not the best—a little crooked, a little crowded, a little (okay, a lot) yellowed. I had retainers twice as a kid, and as a teenager my dentist recommended braces specifically for cosmetic reasons, but of all the battles to fight with my parents, funding prom seemed more worthy. Their discoloration didn’t bother me a whit until tooth-whitening became a Thing, and I experimented with various kits that seemed to make a negligible difference on my appearance (and a noticeable effect on my bank balance). I’m a little self-conscious of my bared-teeth smile (though far less now than before I decided to start flashing ‘em during photos), and honestly, if my income were double what it is, I’d probably have some sort of work done on them.

But just as dyed-to-match prom heels seemed a bigger deal than straight teeth to me in 1993, ultimately having perfect teeth isn’t worth it to me. I’ll never suggest that you should turn to me for tips on “how to love your looks”; it’s not what I’m good at, either in embodying that ethos or giving instruction on it. What I will say is this: Viewing cosmetic dentistry as a consumer might ultimately make more people buy in—but it’s had the opposite effect on me. I look at my earning power, and I look at my goals, and I just don’t see room in there for making my pearls pearlier, you know? Obviously I find space in my budget for other optional expenses—$56 retinol cream? Bring it! And given that I haven’t started serious wrinkling yet, but use this stuff daily, I’ll be “bringing it” for the rest of my life, adding up to a not-inconsiderable sum that I could probably spend on veneers or whitening. Perhaps it’s the effect of knowing that my discoloration only bothers me because “the media” told me it should (seriously, I didn’t think twice about it until I’d read, oh, my fifth or so feature on it in ladymags); perhaps it’s consumer skepticsm; perhaps it’s just good old-fashioned resilience. Whatever it is, I’m taking a cue from Kirsten Dunst and sticking with my “snaggle fangs”: “They give me character, and character is sexy.” I’ll sink my teeth into that.

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2 Responses to “Grin and Bare ‘Em: Bad Teeth”

  1. not a fan says:

    nobody read this, everyone just looked at the teeth .. #longarticle , #timemanagement

  2. bob says:

    I think the most important thing about teeth is that you take care of them, of course we all want them to look good but we want them to look good as well. You can always try zoom teeth whitening to help them look good!

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