White teeth

A lifelong love of coffee, red wine, tobacco and truth has, alas, left my mouth looking a little worse for wear. But at least there is a certain poetic justice to my oral degradation. The mouth, not unlike its tight-lipped counterpart, is a vent for a great deal of noxious discharge. What passes for speech is more often than not a reflexive evacuation of nervous energy. Tragically, there is more than ever of that going around in the annals of cyberspace. People’s bodies are pilloried, their appearances are savaged. In these ethically barren times, the body has become the new frontline in the ongoing war for meaning.

I come from a country once famed for its bad teeth. But suddenly, as if by an overnight leap in evolution, crooked teeth are suddenly straight and discoloured teeth are suddenly white. They are not merely white, though – there is simply no shade of whiteness on any palette to describe them. They are hyper-white, as when sunlight strikes snow. They are blindingly white, as when metal is heated to melting point. Or, as the tabloid-deployed cliché always puts it, they are dazzling.

In a relatively short space of time, teeth whitening has become a widely accepted practice (and a highly lucrative industry). Predictably, this rapid spread of white teeth has created a domino effect, rapidly displacing the unsightly yellow teeth of yore. At first we saw these brilliant flashes of white only in films, magazines and on television. Now they are everywhere. Smile, flash, dazzle.

This craze is self-enforcing by virtue of the vanity that compels it. Yellow teeth, in all their many hues, are routinely used in Hollywood films to represent moral degeneracy. Yellow teeth = human rodent. How fitting, then, that our teeth, with which we gleefully tear into food, and gnash out the demented ravings of our passions, should be bleached clean of their true hue. To whiten our teeth is yet another instance of the numerous ways we whitewash reality.

As a teenager I could certainly have benefitted from better dentistry. I was so self-conscious about my teeth that I cultivated a clam-like countenance to smirk my way through the many situations in which a mindless grin – that toothiest of all expressions – was expected of me. It has even occurred to me that my deep-rooted sadness grew out of the taut, tight-lipped face that I adopted as my general demeanour.

But despite my own, um, oral issues, I still feel bewildered and angry when I am confronted with the spectacle of yet another set of hyper-white teeth. They strike me as a conflagration of gaudiness, a blinding flash of artifice. These teeth are so flagrantly unnatural as to be absurd; it is impossible to believe in the integrity of such an incandescent smile-in-itself.

Where eugenics was once a by-word for evil, people are now voluntarily signing themselves up for a programme of procedures, surgeries and treatments that are transforming them into a homogenous ideal. They are depilating, shaving, waxing, bronzing, plucking, bleaching and surgically altering themselves into a template of beauty that can be crudely superimposed on anybody.

This is a tragedy of immense proportions. Where pangs of conscience used to torment people, ugliness has become the new sin. Alienation, that most pertinent of historical criticisms, has now crept into our very bodies: we are estranged, disgusted even, with the reality of our corporeal selves. The human body has become the final frontier in our deranged quest for happiness. Historically, it is inevitable. Conceptually, it is self-defeating. Literally, it is self-destructive.

A friend of mine has what is commonly known as a snaggle tooth. He once told me, with his distinctive chuckle, that he would find it hard to get work in the U.S.A. with such a dental quirk. He was, of course, exaggerating but there is a self-policing mentality that enforces these new standards of pulchritude. In the case of white teeth, it is a terrifyingly lambent bar indeed.

George Clooney’s character in the film Intolerable Cruelty constantly obsesses over his teeth. At every opportunity he examines them in a mirror to make sure there are no little pieces of food caught in them and to reassure himself that their whiteness is still intact. Whiteness is a difficult standard to sustain, whether in clothes, bed sheets, morals or teeth. Just as the devoutly religious need to perpetually reaffirm their faith through ritual, so our white-toothed heroes need to perpetually brush, polish and floss their pearly whites to keep the blemishes of reality at bay.

But having pitched the glow of teeth at this white-hot intensity, anything less is considered abnormal. Some years ago, a well-known British actress was offered a role in a US television show on condition that she had her teeth whitened. That journalistic bastion of white teeth, the Daily Mail, promptly picked up the story:

“Then she gnashes her teeth dramatically. “See,” she says. “I’ve had them whitened. When I first started filming […], my agent and the producer told me I needed to have my teeth whitened. I was actually quite offended. I’m very good at brushing them. So I refused. Everyone just shrugged and told me they’d do a test film. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe what I looked like on the screen. I’m not kidding, compared to everyone else my teeth looked green. I was horribly embarrassed.” Not only did she have her teeth brightened, but she also got a brace for added dental perfection.”

Until Nazism – that oversimplified by-word for evil – eugenics was a popular idea with many prominent and influential supporters. Whereas before it could only be practised through forced sterilisation, blood testing and selective breeding, it will soon be a very real possibility in the form of genetic engineering. There would be outrage if people were genetically engineered to conform to a physical standard that was deemed ‘superior’. Yet vast numbers of people are actively striving to conform to a ubiquitous physical ideal that is a super-race by another name. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 15.9 million Americans underwent surgical and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures in 2015. These figures are uniformly rising all around the world.

But let us not forget for one moment that this ubiquitous notion of beauty is, first and foremost, the product of an industry. The reason that so many people are undergoing teeth-whitening and cosmetic surgery is precisely because they are nothing like that hypostasised beauty ideal. They are, in other words, normal. But a hyper-reality, it seems, requires a hyper-white smile to bear it out.

My greatest fear is becoming prematurely edentulous, as though toothlessness would be the ultimate price for my truthfulness. As for the conflict zone of my mouth, where my furry tongue and maloccluded teeth and mangled language all vie for sovereignty, I understand that reality cannot be contested. I may resort to cosmetic palliatives but they would not alter the underlying reality of my epic oral struggle.

It has, inevitably, occurred to me to get implants, dentures, anything that could offer my mouth sufficient bite to get through whatever life I have left. The idea calls to mind Nabokov’s delightful description in Pnin of how the protagonist Timofey feels after having his teeth removed:

“A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anaesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.”

The locus of our humanness lies in the mouth. Where sense and nonsense are mashed together into an indistinguishable pulp. Where pleasure and pain are equally tongue-tied. The mouth endlessly strives for self-affirmation, like some squirming, writhing unicellular organism. It spits, spouts, spurts. It oohs, it ums, it errs. Dentures were a fine invention. Implants are a pricey step up. But the mass reconstruction of the mouth that is currently underway is nothing less than a step towards the homogenisation of humanity. Myriad rows of indistinguishably even, hyper-white teeth border the mouth like tiny white picket fences. Ultimately, this illusion only serves to alienate people from themselves while further estranging them from reality. It is a vicious white lie with the direst ramifications.

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