But grandma, what big teeth you have…

by Yule Heibel on December 7, 2013

Had to go to the mall this afternoon – what a nightmare. Store upon same store, selling the same stuff over and over again …it was like Kafka meets Dante in one of those hellish circles. In the course of my twenty minutes there, I amused myself by taking photos of some of the advertising in store windows. Specifically, I took photos of the always toothy smiling women. Here’s the collage:

The lipstick model’s smile is actually not as outrageously big as the bright red lip color makes it seem. But check out the extreme chompers on the model at the top left, as well as the image directly below her. And what about the trio of ladies, top right? That seems to be Christy Turlington (?) on the left, whose bite seems positively velociraptor-ish. The Asian model next to her has a smaller enameled area, and instead displays an alarming expanse of pink gums.

I remember a time before Julia Roberts (who, we all know, has a perfect smile) when it didn’t seem necessary for every model to have quite such a huge abundance of dental matter. A smile didn’t have to be – what’s the word?, “incandescent,” I believe they call it? But we’re all Americans and therefore more of a good thing is always better. Therefore, what was merely incandescent yesterday must today be positively atomic, radioactive, literally radiant, blow your mind big. ‘Cause bigger is always better, right?

Perhaps we used to think only of horses as having huge teeth – and maybe of chimpanzees, too. Maybe we didn’t see chimps on an everyday basis, but lots of Europeans (and Americans of yore) saw horses a lot, as well as mules and donkeys and asses, all of which have gigantic teeth. And often those animals only showed their teeth when they were frightened or about to bite.

So how is it that we now want all women to look like this? Disclaimer: I’m not saying these models aren’t beautiful. They are beautiful; they have beautiful teeth. But, is it just me, or does all that toothiness sometimes starts to look a little scary? Just a bit? My point-of-departure here is that such a biting display of dental prowess didn’t become the norm until fairly recently, and I can’t help but marvel at how quickly the norms have changed. A big mouth used to be considered a flaw. No more.

Here’s a great article, The Serious and the Smirk: The Smile in Portraiture, which puts the smile into an art historical context (e.g., “…in the long history of portraiture the open smile has been largely, as it were, frowned upon.”). (n.b.: art history is good; you learn tons of stuff.)

Anyway. There you have it, a small collage of big teeth. And here are some quotes and links about women or teeth or smiles (or all three). Enjoy.

…it is suggested that whilst the teeth of both sexes act as human ornament displays, the female display is more complex because it additionally signals residual reproductive value. (source)

Within female saints’ legends the tortured body parts are often sexualized and utterlygendered. Thus, this paper will argue that the gorge and its components are not only treated asa “door” through which beliefs and vocation are uttered, but also metaphorically as a vagina or vagina dentata. The teeth play a crucial role as they function as the only visible barrier  between inner and outer body, as a symbolic “hymen”, which is “deflowered” in the legend of St. Apollonia among others by pulling the teeth out. Within the legends of female saints – mouth and vagina – the two culturally established entrances to a woman’s body seem to beused interchangeably. (source)

…the Victorians thought of open-mouthed smiling as obscene, and nineteenth-century English and American slang equated “smiling” with drinking whisky. (source)

In animals, the exposure of teeth, which may bear a resemblance to a smile and imply happiness, often conveys other signals. The baring of teeth is often used as a threat or warning display—known as a snarl—or a sign of submission. For chimpanzees, it can also be a sign of fear. (source)

On one hand, it goes without saying that teeth are signals and status symbols. One of the first things people will say about a lower-class person is that they are either missing teeth (typically mentioned of whites) or are wearing grills or gold caps (typically mentioned of blacks). And rich people and nearly all celebrities get extensive work done on their teeth.  Having good teeth is so important to perceived sexual and overall social attraction that it affects peoples’ ability to get jobs. (source)

Smiling makes its entry into Western art primarily in the Renaissance “vanitas” paintings depicting the folly of human existence and the temptations of the flesh, from sex to gambling to cheating, observes Richard Estelle, a Philadelphia artist who, along with his wife, Camille Ward, has studied the art history of smiles. The only folks grinning in those pictures are the fools about to have their wallets lifted or their money taken by cardsharps. To the old masters, smiles were for losers. (source)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Locke December 7, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I recently saw a blog on Huffington that was extolling the virtues of “oil-pulling,” an Ayurvedic practice that involves a kind of gargling–or really just holding–coconut oil or another kind of oil in your mouth for say, 15 minutes. The health blogger who was recommending this had perhaps the biggest and most beautiful teeth I’ve ever seen. She said that it not only removed toxins from the body, but also promoted all-around oral health and made her teeth look great. I couldn’t help but feel that she already had unbelievably huge and beautiful teeth, so this was perhaps not necessary. So I join the chorus of critiques here. But–full disclaimer–with help from my mother, we did have braces on my daughter for about a year for some minor imperfections that would never have called for braces when I was 13.

Yule December 7, 2013 at 8:25 pm

(An aside: I tried “pulling oil” for some sinus problems, on the recommendation of my good friend Betsy. I seriously thought I was going to throw up. It’s definitely NOT for me! 🙂 )
Yes, the orthodontists (via the dentists) get to the parents early. Son had braces, but we had to tell the orthodontist that we weren’t willing to have his jaw broken and reset. I’m biased, but he’s very handsome and it was totally unnecessary – just an additional fillip for achieving that basically not-quite-necessary perfection. Daughter has straight teeth, but saw an oral surgeon for some scar repair after a bad fall on her bike. This happened when she was about 10 or 11. The oral surgeon had the nerve to say, “I’ll see you again when you’re 16 and here to have your jaw reset.” (She has a mildly – very mildly – “shy” chin.) I was gobsmacked. Needless to add, we did NOT see him when she was 16 or at any other time.
There was a beautiful, drop-dead gorgeous girl in daughter’s choir. She, too, had a slightly “shy” chin (think Liza Minelli, albeit not as “bad” as hers). She was about 14 and already had a standing appointment to have her jaw broken and reset when she was 16. Incroyable. Really blew my mind to encounter this culture of perfection as executed on children, for pete’s sake.

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