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.

Why 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.

What’s the Technique?

People have blackened their teeth with a huge variety of fruits, nuts, leaves, saps, woods, roots, metals, clays, minerals – really, so many things will make your teeth black that I’m now surprised that we don’t all have shiny dark smiles. In Southeast Asia, people did a daily touch-up with soot collected from the oily smoke of coconut shells burnt on a piece of iron. In Japan, people applied a solution of tea powder mixed with iron filings dissolved in vinegar every few days. I’m pretty sure that it’s the iron filings in that mixture that had the real blackening effect, but don’t underestimate tea. After I bumped my tea habit up to two cups a day, my dentist horrifiedly asked me if I had started smoking. Nope, just tea and red wine and, from what I diagnosed from his expression, teeth-brushing skills on par with one of those trained chimps who perform pretend beauty regimes at the circus. On his recommendation, I got an electric toothbrush, and now brushing my teeth is at least a lot more complicated, so that’s a plus, right?

But don’t think that you have to be a chemist or a botanist or even a committed tea-drinker if you want to experiment with blackening your very own teeth. Any part of the very common houseplant known as the Pothos Vine (Epipremnum pinnatum (L.) Engl. (Araceae) if you’re being all technical) will blacken teeth when chewed. Bonus: chewing it was described by the tribes that used it for teeth blacking as having a mild narcotic effect, imparting a “soothing, sedative feeling.” And it’s tolerant of low light and erratic watering – just don’t tell the DEA! If you can’t grow Pothos Vine because of a bad black thumb (pun intended), you can do like the Javanese did and chew pomegranate rind while sipping coconut water from a cup with a chunk of iron in it. DIY option: Just dump some nails in your Vita Coco Coconut Water and you’ll be good to go.

Of Course, You Might Have to Suffer for Beauty.

As someone who used Crest WhiteStrips just last week, I can attest that beauty is painful. I also ripped those suckers off halfway through the recommended time allotment, because I couldn’t handle the chemical taste. However, an hour of feeling like I was licking a factory floor is nothing compared to the process undergone by those who wanted to blacken their teeth permanently back in the day. In Vietnam, the process took days. First, girls thoroughly cleaned their teeth with powdered coal mixed with salt. Then they eroded the enamel over several days, creating pits in their teeth so that the dye would adhere better, by holding pieces of lemon in their mouths and drinking rice wine mixed with lemon juice. This generally caused soreness and swelling of the lips, tongue, and gums. Then the girls went through three stages of dying – a first application of shellac and lemon juice, applied to a cloth and left on the teeth overnight over several days, turned their teeth dark red; then a solution made of iron or copper was applied to react with the shellac and turn it black; and finally, extra shine was given with soot from burnt coconut shells. The girls weren’t allowed to eat solid or hot food at any point during the process, and anything they could eat had to be gulped down quickly so it wouldn’t interfere with the dyes. At least they were better off than the girls of the Chamoru people of Micronesia, who spent up to two weeks only drinking small amounts of liquids through a funnel in order not to interfere with the application of tooth blackener.

Oh, and the shellac the Vietnamese used? It’s made from the secretions of an aphid-like insect that feeds on sap. I’m telling you, teeth blackening is all about secretions. And I imagine that it was fairly expensive, too, since rounding up enough tiny insects to extract enough secretion would take a fair amount of effort. It was probably like the traditional equivalent of Crème de la Mer. Except that applying that stuff only hurts your wallet, not your entire face/jaw/teeth/hungry stomach/etc. I can’t even think of any beauty treatment I’ve had that even approaches the level of potential pain and suffering of teeth-dying, but then again, I haven’t even ever dyed my hair (too much trouble) and made the executive decision at age 12 to never get my ears pierced (it hurts!), so I guess I’m not the expert on suffering for beauty’s sake.

Is This Still Hip?

Teeth blackening was once the most common form of body modification in the areas where it was practiced – Micronesia, Melanesia, in Southeast Asia from Sumatra to Timor, and from Malaysia to China and northwest India as well as Japan and Taiwan. The practice began in prehistoric times (sometimes deliberately blackened teeth on skeletons are uncovered during archeological digs) but generally started to die out when each area encountered the Western white teeth ideal. It didn’t help that teeth blackening was often a part of religious rituals that Western colonizers or missionaries attempted to stamp out – in some areas, teeth blackening was even outlawed. As a result of cultural and religious pressure, teeth blacking is now rarely practiced. You can still see black teeth sported by some older Vietnamese countrywomen, but they say that their teeth aren’t as black as they should be, since the dye, usually applied for annual touch-ups, is no longer available. That really bums me out. Call to action for Brooklyn organic DIY homesteader intellectuals – produce a microfinanced teeth-blackening collective, please!

It Doesn’t Matter if You’re Black or White…

“Our hostess, small, fat, good-natured, and polite, showing black-lacquered teeth between rosy lips, like ripe seeds in a watermelon, bustled about….” As you can see from this 1890 letter from an American artist living in Japan published in the Century magazine, Americans have long made fun of teeth blackening and similar cultural traditions that go against our ideal of a toothy white smile.
Today, men and women in America are going through some strange and painful procedures to lighten and brighten their teeth. Getting caps or veneers requires filing down the teeth, then adhering a new shiny white surface to the remaining tooth nubbin. You can opt to just whiten your actual teeth with a variety of strips, pastes, and potions – but isn’t voluntarily putting all sorts of chemicals in your mouth kind of strange? Especially since my dentist (who is the greatest dentist ever, and does things like pull out gruesome before and after shots of patients if you do something like say “so, what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen someone do to their teeth?” (Answer, FYI, is using Super Glue to repair cracks in an effort to avoid dentistry visits (PS: this doesn’t work))) recently told me that most people pick a shade of white for their new teeth that is brighter than anything seen in nature. His clients don’t listen when he tries to steer them towards more subdued, natural veneers. This may be due to the fact that when they turn on their TVs, they see a whole lot of this:

Nadine Cole

And this:

courtney love

A long and painful process to make your teeth a non-natural color? Looks like we have more in common with tooth blackeners than we thought.