Monday, February 9, 2009

Bleachorexics and the Culture of Perfection

by Julia Buckley

There's a trend that began in Hollywood and which now extends far, far beyond it that has always really bothered me--the obsession with white, white teeth. (This is often accompanied by faux tans that look orange and unusual, but I'll save that for another post). The tooth phenomenon, I read on this ABC blog, has become such an obsession for some people that they are referred to as "bleachorexics" and they flirt with the danger of totally destroying their teeth.

What is it, then, that makes people so determined to look so unnatural? In some movies I am so distracted by an actor's weirdly glowing teeth that I can't even appreciate his or her performance. I just keep wondering, "Don't they know that their teeth look that way?" I wonder, too, if they think that white teeth somehow make them more authentic, because to me, even in these days of good dental hygiene and a healthy braces trade, "normal" teeth would be a bit crooked and not entirely white.

Skim through blogland and you'll find that folks in other countries find Americans strange--not just because we are, to them, weirdly friendly, but because we as a nation have some scary white teeth.

Now, some might think that my argument is nothing but sour grapes: not only did I never get braces as a kid (my parents couldn't afford them), but I have inherited a tooth enamel that could only, at its kindest, be called "ivory," and at its worst, "yellow." All of my siblings have this color teeth. What it creates, though, is a mouth full of dentiture that does NOT draw attention to itself. It goes with our skin. If I went to the dentist tomorrow and told him to make my teeth twenty shades whiter, I think it would disorient everyone I know. How could they not notice my suddenly powder-white chompers, my newly odd smile?

Beyond this, I wonder that no one objects to the fact that we are a culture trying to homogenize itself. How many starlets have given in to that horrible "get too thin" disease that has eaten away at the bodies and self-esteems of many good women before them? How many men feel they are not worthwhile, especially as a visual image, if they are not pumped up and muscular, then sprayed brown and bleached until their teeth can light a room? Doesn't this feel like a conveyor belt of falsity? Isn't it okay to just be yourself these days?

In any case, even if I fell victim to this public-scrutiny disease and found myself somehow lacking, I simply don't have the priorities to spend thousands on my teeth and skin. I have a ten-year-old car and kids who need college educations. I'm pretty sure I'll remain authentic until I die. :)

I had a friend who got her teeth whitened recently, for a wedding. She was convinced that she wouldn't look good in the wedding pictures unless her teeth were somehow better, whiter, cleaner looking. She went for the procedure in my town and then stopped to visit me for a while. Through our entire conversation she clasped her jaw and moaned in pain. "This will go away," she assured me. "It will be worth it. The pain only lasts a while."

Okay. I'll take her word for it, but I'm still not going to whiten my teeth.

What's your take on this phenomenon? Is it simply a social necessity? A way to make movie star dreams come true? Or a sign of our obsession with our own faces?

photo link here.


Kathryn Lilley said...

I'm sure you have lovely teeth that are appropriate to your skin tone, Julia! As our mothers used to say, "everything in moderation." I think there's a happy medium between blinding white on one end of the spectrum, and ancient-ivory on the opposite end. Some people (and dentists) do get carried away. But I also get distracted when I encounter people who have excessively yellow or dingy teeth. I always wonder, if finances aren't an issue, why they don't remediate the situation. But I'm a shallow La La Land gal! My pet peeves include overinflated lips and boobs, which you see a lot of around Beverly Hills. They go with blinding teeth, at least on the women.

Lorna Barrett said...

I agree with you, Julia, bright white teeth look unnatural. One of the women in my former office whitened her teeth before her wedding and all you could do was stare at her glowing teeth. Like you, I have what would be called "yellow" teeth. I have considered lightening them a shade, but haven't done it and probably won't. What are the long-term risks of all that peroxide in your mouth? I fear that ten years down the line there'll be a lot of oral cancer, and I'm not eager for that to happen to me.

Sheila Connolly said...

Yup, I've got those yellow teeth. Once when I was having some veneers made for the most visible ones, my dentist was frustrated because even his darkest choice wasn't a very good match.

It's funny sometimes to watch television shows or movies, and everybody's teeth are blindingly white. (Or do they color the ones for the bad guys? After all, you could see them in the dark.)

My biggest peeve is all those ice-cream-scoop breasts. Does anyone think they aren't obvious? And they don't even move. That and over-peroxided blonde hair, which looks fried. Hmmm, maybe the bleached teeth and the bleached hair come as a set.

Susan D said...

There are mindsets geared towards self-destruction that I will never come close to fathoming; many involve costly and voluntary bodily damage in pursuit of at best non-existent and at worst life-threatening results. They include smoking, breast ("I'm doing it for myself") implants, tattooed-on eye make-up, botox injections and high-heeled shoes.

So I'll just add dental destruction to that list.

Chris Roerden said...

I'm glad you wrote this, because it's been on my mind ever since I found myself staring at a friend's bright whites for the full half-hour of our recent conversation. I heard little of what told me of her books because my view was so focused on her mouth. I noticed how her tongue moved, the way it curled, how little beads of saliva formed, and so on. Surely she would have noticed that I almost never looked up at her eyes. the effect was similar to my not being able to watch the road at night because of the blinding halogen headlights coming at me.

A corollary of this whitening craze is that the big discount stores stock their tooth care shelves almost exclusively with abrasive whitening toothpaste, which wears down tooth enamel the way scouring powder ruins sinks and counters. Dentists say to use whitener only once a week, then give away sample tubes of it.

Jody said...

Oh the pain! I mentioned to my dentist a couple of years ago about how one of my teeth was getting so sensitive. He told me to quit using whitening toothpaste, that it had been shown to increase sensitivity. No more problem after 1st using toothpaste for sensitive teeth for a few months & then back to Crest original paste (it's getting hard to find too!)
I know if I'd quit drinking coffee & the occasional glass of red wine, my teeth wouldn't be quite so yellowed, but they do look natural!

Julia Buckley said...

Kathryn, you are entirely right. And some people lighten their teeth in a responsible and gentle manner. My own brother had his done and all I noticed was that he looked fit. He told me it was because he'd had his teeth ligthened. :) But boy, I am with you on those fake lips. They look like caterpillars.

Lorna, the health risks seem real enough that you'd think everyone would be careful . ..

Sheila, I had the same experience. I once asked if I could get a cap on a tooth, and my dentist, ever polite, said, "I'm just wondering if I could match the shade . . ." which, translated, meant "your teeth are outrageously yellow." :)

Susan, I agree with your entire list. I only endured high heels in high school, and then one day I just said, "No more." However, I have friends who say that they are not comfortable in any shoes except high heels. Maybe it's a question of one's arches?

Chris, your comment made me laugh! How often people probably find themselves in this odd situation--and we're too polite to say a thing. :)

Jody, I have really sensitive teeth, too! I'll have to remember that about the whitening toothpaste, because of course that's what we always buy. Back to the sensodyne . . .

Sandra Parshall said...

My teeth have long been the bane of my existence, and things only got worse when I went to a professional photographer to have a picture taken for my first book jacket. The photographer looked at my smile and advised me to keep my mouth closed for the photo session because I didn't have an attractive smile -- my two front teeth are darker than the rest, he noted, and besides, my smile looks "forced". Now I find myself always trying to smile with my lips closed. And I've considered having veneers made for those two front teeth, but veneers start at around $1200 each and escalate from there... I'll just keep my mouth closed. It's cheaper.

Julia Buckley said...

I'm with you, Sandra. Vanity has its price. :)