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Is the Era of the Perfect Smile Over?

A burgeoning backlash against preternaturally perfect teeth is taking shape online.

 Rosamund Pike at the 87th Academy Awards
Trunk Archive

“No way to say this without sounding like a sicko, but I love to see real human teeth,” Guardian reporter Madeleine Aggeler posted last month on X, referencing a photo of Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons on the Oscars red carpet. In the picture, the couple are smiling broadly, and although their teeth are white, they’re also undeniably real: Dunst’s upper lip curls to reveal a glimpse of gum atop gently crooked teeth, Plemons’s to expose marginally uneven incisors.

So far, the post has received just shy of 70 thousand likes, revealing that Aggeler is far from alone in her sentiment. “Veneer culture is out of control,” replied one user. “They gentrified his mouth,” quipped another in response to a before-and-after photo of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, whose teeth, once coarse and stained with age, have now been swapped out for a set of gleaming white chiclet veneers.

So how did we get to a place where glimpses of celebrities’ real teeth are so rare they incite an internet-storm of delight? Dental intervention has been around since the pyramids (even Cleopatra is alleged to have worn a brace-like structure) and has been recorded in most documented cultures. Yet the de facto ideal smile that took hold in Western society, particularly in the US, is one of straight, white teeth. There are ideological reasons for this: colonial Brits and their ancestors have long associated the color white with purity, peace, and status. There are also practical ones: stained teeth can be symptomatic of aging and various health conditions, while crooked teeth can be harder to clean and use.

The American Dream

In the mid-20th century, the exploding field of American dentistry put these ambient associations on steroids. Then Hollywood upped the dose. Dental intervention, even when required out of necessity, was expensive, so good teeth became a marker of class and social status, part and parcel of the American dream. A poker-straight smile became a middle-class birthright as parents shipped their teens in droves to the orthodontist for braces.

Those without the disposable income to polish and straighten idiosyncratic smiles— and those withoutthe insurance covering cleanings and fillings to keep their teeth healthy—became collateral damage. (In 2023, 68.5 million adults in the US were getting by without dental insurance.) Bad teeth were associated with an unwillingness, or inability, to look after oneself. It’s a trope that elicits real-world consequences: “Poor teeth, I knew, beget not just shame but more poorness: people with bad teeth have a harder time getting jobs and other opportunities. People without jobs are poor. Poor people can’t access dentistry—and so goes the cycle,” observed writer Sarah Smarsh in her seminal essay “Poor Teeth,” a visceral account of “the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country.”

Yet while working-class Americans were losing teeth to treatable maladies, cosmetic dentistry was advancing into a multi-billion dollar industry. Practitioners supplemented braces and bleach with veneers, whereby a dentist adheres a layer of porcelain or composite to a filed-down tooth. Veneers were quickly adopted by the Hollywood set keen to emulate their city’s eponymous smile (since 1929, temporary porcelain prosthetics had been used to perfect actors’ teeth on screen) and even Dunst herself reported having been pressured by a Spider-man producer to “fix” her teeth. (Granted, in many cases fake teeth can be medically necessary and life-changing, but the majority of people who seek them out are driven by aesthetics, not function.)

However, it wasn't until the advent of social media that veneers became ubiquitous, a mandatory component of “Instagram face,” the uncanny, yassified beauty ideal propagated by influencers and achieved through cosmetic enhancements. “In Western cultures, women are increasingly expected to look a certain way: the pathosis of that is women that get so much plastic surgery that they end up looking like a particular caricature, and straight white teeth are part of that,” says Dr. Carlos Quiñonez, vice dean and director at the Schulich School of Dentistry, Western University in London, Ontario.

Cosmetic dentists themselves soon became influencer-adjacent, garnering colossal followings on the social media they used to lure new patients. “Taking a medical procedure and recasting it as a marketable consumer good isn’t a simple process, but it’s one for which Instagram’s structure and culture work almost perfectly,” wrote Amanda Mull in The Atlantic.

Biting Back

But, as the response to the Dunst post suggests, there’s a rising tide of resistance against uncannily perfect teeth. This pushback is particularly salient on TikTok, where videos critiquing veneers have racked up hundreds of thousands of likes. Users laud actors like Jacob Elordi for retaining (no pun intended) his “imperfect” teeth, and mourn celebrities’ pre-intervention smiles. In a widely-liked video, creator @corabrei goes as far as to compare the popularity of veneers to the prevalence of breast implants in preceding decades. “I’m convinced that veneers are the new breast implant. Everyone has them like they had those big double-Ds in the ’90s and 2000s. But the big difference between veneers and implants is that you can’t reverse your veneers,” she cautions.

Of course, the embracing of imperfect teeth isn’t exclusive to the West. In parts of Southeast Asia, teeth were historically blackened as a means of attracting a sexual partner, while women of the Mentawai Tribe in Indonesia have long sharpened their teeth for aesthetic reasons. In Japan, yaeba, teeth with a crooked fang-like appearance (“snaggletooth” in American parlance), have seen a surge in popularity over the past 15 years, inspired by their presence in anime and on pop stars like Tomomi Itano. This has led to a wave of young women paying to have their upper canines capped with vampiric ornamental teeth.

“I just thought my teeth were misaligned and that it was sort of a blessing in disguise since it gave me more character and made me more memorable,” says dental student and educational TikToker Michaella Lichauco, who made a viral video about yaeba that incited an avalanche of enthusiasm. ”It was so touching to see numerous comments from viewers who found my content relatable… as well as those who, until watching my video, hadn’t recognized the charm and beauty in imperfection,” she says.

Much of the critique of veneers is rooted in the idea that they rob us of our character. (This is particularly true of actors in period pieces sporting unnaturally pearly whites.) Quiñonez theorizes that these celebrations of imperfection are part of a collective fatigue with social media-bred same-ification. “When I open Instagram, it's really a lot of homogeneous people in terms of how they look, what they promote, and so on,” he says. “So could [embracing natural teeth] be a rejection of that cultural push towards homogeneity that social media, for good or bad, engenders?” This attitude is echoed in digital trends like #mecore, which sees Gen Z cultivating a sense of style independent of what’s trending, as well as a recent surge of resistance against anti-aging procedures and filler. It also echoes the non-conformity intrinsic to longer-standing movements, like body positivity and embracing gray hair.

The backlash against artificially perfect teeth could also signal a disavowal of what they’ve come to represent in modern America. “Straight white teeth, orthodontics, visiting the dentist every six months became part of the suburban ritual. You had your 2.3 kids, your one car in your driveway, and your perfectly green lawn—it was an ideal. I think this rejection deeply reflects a general rejection of what I would call ‘cultural capitalism,’” says Quiñonez.

Veneers for the Masses

Today, though, the class associations around fake teeth are shifting. In US and UK dental clinics, veneers are expensive, costing between $925 and $2,500 per tooth. So, to bridge the gap (pun intended), in the early 2010s, dentists in countries like Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Thailand began offering affordable pastiches of the Hollywood smile. Many of these dentists, however, fit their patients with crowns instead of veneers, a quicker, easier procedure, but one that winnows away at the tooth far more. Like frequenting sunbeds to emulate the look of having just returned from an expensive holiday, regular people are damaging their bodies in pursuit of a beauty standard propagated by the rich and famous. “Society often finds itself susceptible to the influence of online trends and celebrity endorsements…Consequently, oral health often becomes a secondary concern, with trends or aesthetics overshadowing function,” saysLichauco.

The smiles acquired through dental tourism are also often preternaturally white and discordant with the faces framing them. As such, instead of leveling the dental privilege playing field, “turkey teeth” have come to elicit a similar kind of class-based judgment as bad teeth. “People want straight, white teeth because they want to fit in… It's like the thirst for dignity when you are socially and economically excluded,” opines Quiñonez. The mockery of turkey teeth is “cheap resistance,” he says: “There is nothing sophisticated about othering somebody who's got such a thirst for dignity that they're willing to look clownish, even if they don’t think so.”

As it stands, the global veneers market is projected to grow from $1534 million (in 2023) to $2280.5 million by 2030. It is hard to say if social media’s newfound resistance—whether cheap or loaded with anti-capitalist sentiment—will gain enough momentum to change that. Regardless, the rise of challenges to algorithmic osmosis spells a welcome turn of the tide. “People are just thirsting for something real,” says Quiñonez.

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