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The survey on the social importance of having nice teeth is getting a lot of play. Fifty-eight percent of men and 71% of women claim that teeth are what they judge most in members of the opposite sex.
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. The stigma of bad teeth is so prominent that it won’t be a surprise if someday the government mandates fresh sets of straight teeth for poor kids.
A recent study looked into the value of teeth as ornaments of genetic quality and status:
Ornament displays seen in animals convey information about genetic quality, developmental history and current disease state to both prospective sexual partners and potential rivals. In this context, showing of teeth through smiles etc is a characteristic feature of human social interaction. Tooth development is influenced by genetic and environmental factors. Adult teeth record environmental and traumatic events, as well as the effects of disease and ageing. Teeth are therefore a rich source of information about individuals and their histories. This study examined the effects of digital manipulations of tooth colour and spacing. Results showed that deviation away from normal spacing and/or the presence of yellowed colouration had negative effects on ratings of attractiveness and that these effects were markedly stronger in female models. Whitening had no effect beyond that produced by natural colouration. This indicates that these colour induced alterations in ratings of attractiveness are mediated by increased/decreased yellowing rather than whitening per se. Teeth become yellower and darker with age. Therefore 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.
As to the importance of teeth to women in particular, researchers hypothesized:
Age also has an important influence on the appearance of teeth, with these tending to become yellower and darker as people get older , , , . This may partly explain why females are more concerned about the appearance of their teeth than men . Age-related changes in colour mean that women’s teeth are also serving to signal residual reproductive value (e.g. ). Hence women smile more than men , ,  and are the only sex to commonly enhance the prominence of their tooth displays by the wearing of lipstick .
Worth exploring is the tendency of women to also judge other women relatively harshly on the status of the contents of their mouths.
It’s no secret that Americans are obsessed with both status and, compared to other nations, teeth. But why are Americans more concerned than others about putting their best teeth forward? Is it that the obsession with status found the most natural place to display itself, or is it that America’s laissez-faire attitude provided a pathway for medical methods to preserve and improve smiles? The desire for status could have fed off of the technology just as people began saving up for vacations after the invention of cars and airplanes; the improvements and then the decreased cost of those vehicles increased the demand for vacations.
On the impact of economic models: Communism perhaps limited many Europeans’ desire to keep up their own appearances:
In this image, Ms. Drakulic sees a metaphor for what is wrong with so much of post-Communist Eastern Europe, a metaphor for the failure of people to develop a sense of individual responsibility and seize control of their lives, a failure she believes may ultimately affect these countries’ ability to become true working democracies with involved citizens.
“Bad teeth are the result of bad dentists and bad food,” she writes, “but also of a specific culture of thinking, of not seeing yourself as an individual. What we need here is a revolution of self-perception. Not only will that not come automatically with the new political changes, but I am afraid that it will also take longer than any political or economic developments. We need to accept our responsibilities towards both others and ourselves.”
And at BBC News Sarah Dunant has speculated on America’s superiority in this category. She seems to hint that our economic model incorporated technological advancement, entrepreneurial dentists, and a sort of enthusiasm which blended into a focus on status as part of the explanation:
But it’s more than that. There is also the rise and rise of the Kodak camera (say “cheese”) and arrival of Technicolor.
Think of the change from black and white dustbowl images of American men and women, blackened teeth and blank eyes staring into no future to that cinematic Doris Day smile, or more precisely the all American girl Mitzi Gaynor “washing that man right out of her hair” amid the technically enhanced colours of South Pacific, and you have a cultural shift as dazzling as the teeth that proclaimed it.
Post-war American optimism: the house, the car, the kids, the wife and the teeth to match the fridge doors behind her.
Here in Britain, with dentistry hanging on the tails of the NHS it was all a bit more hit and miss. Many baby boomers had some brush (I refuse to apologise for the word) with orthodontics.
Countries with planned economic systems and limitations placed on the health care doled out to its citizens would probably de-prioritize dental work. It’s not as important as fixing broken limbs or fighting off viruses. America’s system generally allowed individuals to prioritize for themselves, and a great many of them opted for dental work. Dentists had an economic incentive to make their work painless and also of higher quality than in Europe. The creep of leisure into American lifestyle democratized the desire to be considered attractive. A free-ish marketplace allowed natural mammalian valuations to take hold. Status signaling teeth were ‘unnaturally’ prevented from communicating information about things like genetic health, dominance, and youth by our diets full of sugar and wheat. Teeth rotted and they were sapped off all ability to communicate any sort of information. But some nations (and economic systems) were able to develop ways to counteract the effects of those bad dietary practices on teeth. And now we’re at the point where plenty of people have realized just how important teeth are, and so we have this cottage industry of cosmetic dentistry. That tends to happen here. A quality that is desirable gets taken to its extreme. Works with money, credentials, muscles, boobs, teeth, you name it.