In our new column, Hemlines Rising, we’ll be exploring the evolution of certain fashion and beauty trends throughout history. Today: what color should your teeth be? Pick either black or white.
The first person I knew with braces was my mom. She starting rocking a metallic smile in her early 30′s, when I was in kindergarten. Judging from “before” photos, it was a good idea – let’s just say that she didn’t smile much in her wedding pics for a good reason.
I’ve been continuing my mom’s trend of late-blooming interest in cosmetic dentistry by thinking a lot about the color of my teeth lately. My teeth are not anywhere near the level of white that it seems they should be.
If you happen to look on TV, say, ever, you will notice that most people’s teeth are just a shade beneath blindingly white. Not only is that the norm for actors who appear on HD televisions, but our obsession with–and thirst for–white teeth runs so deep that in England (land of the not so bright whites), they call white chompers “American teeth.” Here they’re just called teeth. And they’re expected to be perfectly straight, slightly oversized because of veneers, and most importantly, white, white, blazingly white. We expect white teeth from our celebrities so much that the slightly off-white smile of Irish-German actor Michael Fassbinder, from X-Men and Inglourious Basterds, makes many of his fans crazy. “How can he be handsome and yet not have perfectly white teeth?!?” they ask while Photoshopping pictures of him to give him the American teeth that they think he deserves.
But teeth obsessions are not intrinsic to the Western world. In fact, the Far East may have invented teeth preoccupations. Until the 20th century, they went the other direction. They wanted their teeth black.
Many different cultures practiced teeth blackening, and they had different explanations for why they wanted black teeth. A number of cultures just basically seemed to think that black teeth were hot. They do things like poetically compare black teeth to black lacquer, while a well-known Vietnamese folk song lists the ten characteristics of a beautiful woman – the first four are beautiful hair, a nice voice, dimples, and “glossy teeth blacker than custard apple’s pip.” After a fair amount of Googling, I still have only a hazy idea of what a custard apple is, but I know that a “pip” is its seed, so I’m just imaging someone with a mouth full of shiny black apple seeds. Which would definitely make me do a double take, but probably not result in me writing admiring poetry.
Sometimes there’s a corresponding belief that white teeth are disgusting. During the height of Japan’s teeth blackening phase, which faded out in the mid-19th century, seeing someone’s white teeth was compared with seeing someone’s bones or seeing a mouthful of mealworms. Instead of being jealous, I’m totally going to imagine that’s what I’m seeing next time Eva Mendes flashes her giant pearly whites. Because, seriously, she and her shiny-white-toothed clan have inflicted so much anxiety on me. I don’t appreciate standing in the bathroom in the morning, all bleary-eyed, pretending to myself that the less than stellar whiteness of my teeth is just an optical illusion produced by the way the light hits my mirror. Now I’m just going to think “thank goodness I don’t have bone mouth like Eva Mendes.”
Similarly, in Vietnam, white teeth were associated with wild animals, savage people, and underworld demons. These associations led women to blacken their teeth, disguising this reminder of evil savagery. The same connections led to the cultural practice, still widespread in Asia, of women holding their hands in front of their mouths while laughing. Which is vaguely related to my practice of holding my hand in front of mouth when I’m talking to someone new at a party where I’ve been drinking red wine. Because I get bad cases of what my friends refer to as “wine teeth.” Not as bad as one of my friends, who carries a toothbrush and uses it every half-hour or so at parties, and definitely not bad enough to switch over to white wine (because crappy white wine is so much crappier than crappy red wine and, basically, if I spill I want to look like I’ve had an accident, not just like I’ve wet myself), but bad enough that I never drink red wine on dates (which may explain why I get so grumpy on dates).
In other cultures, black teeth were very sexy, because teeth were blackened during puberty or other initiation rituals. Blackened teeth were thus a signal of sexual maturity and availability, kind of like getting your driver’s license or convincing your mom to let you go on the Pill because, you claim, of your heavy cycle.
In fact, the Mengen tribe of Papua New Guinea considered men to be ineligible for any sexual intercourse unless their teeth were blackened. They used a mixture of plant sap and mineral-rich dirt which they though smelled and tasted like menstrual blood. The idea was that they thought that menstrual blood was a big source of “pollution” if men came in contact with it, and they used the blackening mixture as a sort of “vaccine” to protect men against any possible future polluting contact encountered while earning his red wings. (PS: They used a combination of tavalina (Eugenia sp.) sap and manganese earth in case you want to try out this remedy on a shy significant other.)
Somewhat similarly, the Marind-anim of southwestern New Guinea blackened their teeth during puberty rituals. The medicine men in charge of the rituals told initiates to smear something on their teeth which the medicine men told them contained a “secret and surprisingly powerful medicine.” The secret ingredient was black clay mixed with what the anthropologists prudishly describe as the “mixed sexual secretions collected during previous ritual heterosexual activity.” And you thought that your Friday night pre-game ritual was intense.
Of course, sexual initiation rituals weren’t the only reason for blackening teeth. Some historians claim that women in Renaissance Europe used to paint a tooth or two black in order to make it appear that they had rotten teeth. Seems like a proto-Goth move until you realize that they were trying to seem like they ate a lot of sugar and thus had a lot of cavities – this was back when sugar was an imported and wildly expensive commodity, and cavities were thus status symbols. Although maybe this whole disease-as-status thing is pretty Goth after all – remember when you used to talk about wishing you had gout when you were in high school? Oh, really, no? Maybe that was just me.
By contrast to these Renaissance black-toothed gold-diggers, some scientific studies have suggested that teeth blackening is actually good for dental health. Scientists think that many teeth blackening agents operated as a sort of sealant, coating any cracks or grooves in the teeth and thus keeping out food particles and germs. Moreover, teeth have to be clean for the blackening materials to adhere to them, and thus people who blackened their teeth usually spent a good amount of time cleaning them first, especially when the blackener was of a type that had to be applied daily. Hence, less cavities (and more teeth) in your healthy black smile. I honestly cannot wait to tell my dentist this the next time he asks me if I floss regularly.
The people who practiced teeth blackening understood its health benefits. In Vietnam and the Philippines, people thought that blackening their smiles would strengthen their teeth and prevent the “tooth worm” from burrowing in and creating cavities. Solomon Islanders thought that teeth blackening would prevent sore gums by hardening them. And the word meaning “to clean the teeth” in the Yabem language of Northeastern New Guinea, “da̐alūn,” was a combination of “lūn,”meaning “tooth,” and “da̐a,” meaning “black dye clay.” Keep on brushing until everything is nice and black.