If you look up why white teeth are so attractive, you’ll come across a plethora of articles reiterating the same thing: white teeth are so desirable because they’re good for attracting partners and are a form of “peacocking”, as it were. While there is truth to this, there’s a lot more nuance to the perception of whitened teeth as attractive than these articles talk about.
Here, we’ll go into some of the factors involved in why white teeth are so desirable in North American society and the differences in what has been deemed attractive in teeth across time and cultures. Let’s get into it!
Whitened Teeth Affect How People Perceive You
Now, we’re overwhelmed by ads for teeth whitening. It’s become an ingrained part of U.S. society that whitened teeth equal attractiveness, affluence, youth, and good health. Your teeth affect how people perceive you and the opportunities available to you.
If you have crooked teeth in a natural or yellowed shade, people make snap judgments that this means you are of a lower socioeconomic status, that perhaps you are older than you look, and that you don’t really care about your health or appearance. Even if you do take care of your teeth, if you don’t whiten or straighten them, this is how you can be perceived.
However, did you know that white, straight teeth weren’t and aren’t always viewed this way? In some cultures throughout the world, the American obsession with a perfect smile is strange and raises suspicion, as some cultures view it as artificial. In Japan, for instance, snaggleteeth are seen as endearing and a sign of youth. In Britain, there’s a preference for more natural smiles.
Here in the United States, though, people with whitened teeth are viewed in a more positive light than those with more natural shades, let alone yellowed or blackened teeth.
White Teeth Weren’t Always Seen As Beautiful
Cultures throughout the world have attributed social meaning to the appearance of your teeth. In Mesoamerican societies, people would file their teeth and inlay semi-precious gems into them. In Balinese society, the upper canine teeth would be filed down. The aesthetics and modifications of teeth have long symbolized social status, beauty, youth, and rite of passage. Teeth whitening in the United States is no different.
While white teeth are all the rage now, in Elizabethan England, Southeast Asia, and Japan, blackened teeth were actually seen as a beauty enhancement and a sign of wealth. This may seem baffling to people in the United States nowadays because if your teeth are black, that means that you’re suffering from severe dental decay. How on Earth could that be desirable?
However, these cultures had their reasons for seeing blackened teeth as attractive.
In Elizabethan England, blackened teeth were associated with royalty and affluence. This is due to Queen Elizabeth I’s fondness of sugary treats and how expensive sugar was at the time. Women would use products to blacken their teeth in order to emulate the Queen’s decayed teeth.
In Southeast Asia, blackened teeth helped to camouflage canines, which were associated with evil and animal instincts. People would use over 60 different types of plants in order to achieve this beauty enhancement. Interestingly, the items used to blacken teeth also helped to improve oral health.
In Japan, teeth blackening was born of the desire to prevent tooth decay and was seen as a sign of beauty. It was also used to signify sexual maturity in women over 18 years old. While banned by the Meiji government in 1870, some people still blacken their teeth in Oceanic and Southeast Asian cultures.
Where Did The Idea That White Teeth Are Desirable Come From?
Given that older cultures could improve their dental health with teeth blackening practices, you may wonder how white teeth came to be attributed with good health. It’s a great question!
As knowledge of dental health grew, it became known that the straighter your teeth are, the easier it is to prevent dental caries. It also became known that naturally darkened teeth or teeth with natural black spots were signs of aging and poor dental health. Enter in the beginnings of a societal obsession with white, straight teeth.
Why Do Americans Find White Teeth So Desirable?
There are a few reasons for why whitened teeth are so highly sought after in American society, from attracting partners, to the social construct of power, to adhering to societal ideals, to the growth of the cosmetic dental industry, to preserving dental health, and more. As you’ll see, these all tie together.
#1. Attracting Partners
Ah, yes, the reason that every article about why white teeth are so desirable focuses on. It’s true, though. In studies done comparing people with decayed teeth, people with teeth in natural shades, and people with whitened teeth, people with white teeth were viewed in the most positive light.
Americans place significant importance on physical appearance as a reflection of the type of person that you are. For instance, if you are overweight, people tend to think that this means you are lazy with no self-control, while if you are thin, people take this to mean that you take care of yourself and have great self-discipline. It’s the same with straight, white teeth.
People who have a “good” smile have an easier time attracting potential partners because straight, white teeth say that you care about how you look and about your general health.
Additionally, Americans are obsessed with youth. Your teeth naturally darken as you age due to how the enamel wears down, so white teeth are seen as more youthful, and ergo, more desirable.
#2. The Social Construct Of Power
In our surveillance culture, people are constantly aware of being watched, which serves to deter crime and as a form of social control. While it may seem strange to think about the social construct of power in relation to whitened teeth, the subconscious sense of being watched and awareness of how others perceive you coupled with the societal emphasis on the appearance of your teeth makes people hyperaware of how their teeth look.
People don’t want to be seen as abnormal or judged. Since white, straight teeth are seen as the norm, if you don’t have these, the “dental gaze” keeps you mindful of your teeth’s appearance. This is reinforced by the fact that people with whiter teeth typically have more opportunities and make more money than those who do not. White teeth can be a way to give yourself a leg up to achieve more power.
#3. Adhering To Social Ideals
The beauty industry is set to be worth $571.1 billion dollars in 2023. It’s constantly changing, as can be seen in how glamorous makeup was seen as the height of beauty in 2014, along with skinny jeans and peplum tops, but now, people prefer more natural makeup and Y2K trends. Americans place great importance on their appearance, and your appearance plays a big role in the course of your life.
Straight, white teeth are a social ideal that have continued to rise in importance over the past century. From adverts attributing white teeth to glory in war and career success at the start of the 20th century to today’s professional teeth whitening and the prevalence of over-the-counter teeth whitening products, people forever strive towards whiter teeth in order to be seen as more beautiful according to our society’s ideals.
White teeth are presented as a way to make the American dream a reality.
#4. The Growth Of The Cosmetic Dental Industry
Ask older people, and they’ll likely have a more negative view of the dental industry than younger generations. Given how painful dental treatments used to be, this is no surprise. However, as science has progressed, so too has the prevalence of dental treatments as part of your standard healthcare (though not, unfortunately, typically covered under most standard health insurance plans).
As the dental industry has progressed, so bloomed cosmetic dentistry. With increasing desire for a “perfect” smile, dentists used their expertise to help people. Now, many dentists specialize in cosmetic dentistry and others offer it in addition to normal dental services. They take pride in helping people gain more confidence in their smiles and improving their patients’ lives in more ways than the traditional ones.
This growth of cosmetic dentistry places it in a unique position. Given that it is, as the name implies, cosmetic and not necessarily needed for your health, it risks treading outside the realm of healthcare.
#5. Preserving Dental Health
As we’ve touched on earlier, good health is forever attractive. However, it is more difficult for people with crooked teeth to prevent dental decay than those with straight teeth. This is because of how food particles can more easily get stuck in your teeth and how the angles can make it more difficult to properly brush and floss your teeth.
Additionally, yellow teeth or teeth with black spots can result from lack of care. The black spots are signs of decay, where your enamel has eroded away. Yellow teeth can result simply from eating highly pigmented foods and drinking staining beverages, like coffee and soda, even if you’re careful to brush. However, yellow teeth can also indicate vitamin deficiencies and poor dental hygiene.
Hence, if you have straight, white teeth, this is taken as a sign that you take good care of your teeth, so they’re viewed in a very desirable light.
#6. Perception Of Affluence
Cosmetic dentistry isn’t necessary to your dental health, and as such, people of lower socioeconomic status don’t place as high value on it as people with more money. It can be expensive, and many people cannot afford it. Thus, if you have straight, white teeth, this can cause people to think you have more money. Since money affects how people treat you, if people think that you have it, they’ll treat you with more respect and deference than they would otherwise.
Do You Want White Teeth?
As you can see, there are many reasons why white teeth are so desirable! However, it can be difficult to maintain white teeth on your own, especially if you have a fondness for coffee or blueberries. Fortunately, cosmetic dentists are here to help you feel more confident in your smiles.
VIP Smiles offers a variety of cosmetic dentistry services, including teeth whitening. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you smile with confidence!