How the American Celebrity Smile Became a Global Export

A casual sleuth could estimate an American family’s economic caste simply by looking at their teeth in photos: The average set of braces costs more than a Fendi bag, but nevertheless is a painful rite of maturity for many children of the American middle class, an investment in their personal and professional futures. Parents might choose to finance the several-thousand-dollar hope that nobody pay too much attention to their kids’ perfectly average mouths.

And then there are teeth that you might notice, but in the most positive way. “Think about the best-looking people in our society: your Beyoncés, your Julia Robertses,” says Rhonda Kalasho, a cosmetic dentist in Los Angeles. “They don’t look like they have giant white teeth. They have smiles that fit their faces.” And for that, we are no longer talking about the cost of a Fendi bag, but the cost of reupholstering your bones in gorgeous Italian calfskin.

“Let’s say I’m watching the Oscars,” I ask Dumanian. “What percentage of all-natural teeth am I seeing?” 

Dumanian closes her gold-dusted eyes for five ponderous seconds before offering her estimate: “I would say… 20 percent?”

That is much higher than I’d thought. I turn on my television and see nothing but the brilliant pottery of manufactured smiles reflected back at me. It is amazing that the HBO series Game of Thrones takes place in a quasi-medieval fantasy universe, but concubines and kings alike sport two tidy rows of plaqueless white teeth. The cool teens of Euphoria must have all undergone serious orthodontia in middle school — they arrive at the events of season one with heartbreaking smiles.

It’s a fun game to play while scrolling through Instagram, browsing on Netflix, or otherwise visiting the natural habitats of those who are paid to look good: How many people have gorgeous smiles? How many people have straight, white teeth? And now that I’m thinking about it: What are the odds that their teeth naturally look this good, their lips hovering just so above the gumline? That their teeth naturally appear to be displayed on shelves, rather than suggesting that they break down food into ingestible bits before it can begin a path through the human digestive system?

The odds are extremely low. Over the past few decades, an aesthetic dissonance has grown between humans seen in the corridors of our daily lives, i.e., at the check-out counter and the kitchen table, and the ones who live in our televisions and smartphones. Some people have nice teeth thanks to a genetic win or, far more likely, thanks to the superhuman discipline required to continuously wear a retainer from age 16 until death. Most people, though, have just fine or somewhat crooked or otherwise unremarkable natural teeth, which is probably why uncrooked, better-than-fine teeth have become mythologized to represent success. Cardi B famously bought a bag and fixed her teeth; Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did too. The 45th president of the United States has some of the most recognizable teeth of the era: Two rows of searing pearl that leap forth from a jerkied complexion. False teeth are so entrenched in the lore of the American presidency that children are taught in school about George Washington’s wooden set. (The wood thing is a myth; his dentures were composed from a serial killer’s grab bag that included loose metals and a combination of human, and probably cow and horse, teeth.)

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