Americans and Teeth

At a gathering in London, someone fondly mentioned the “Austin Powers” movie franchise. Clearly, they didn’t mind the films’ fun-poking at Britishisms—and how could they, I figured, given that the barbs were so outrageous?

Chiming in, I said something about Austin’s ridiculous teeth.

Blank stares.

No one had noticed that the Austin Powers character had horrifically bad chompers.

Since then, I’ve noticed that Americans have an especial obsession with teeth. For Americans, good teeth are synonymous with good health, good breeding, good hygiene, and good manners.

We straighten our teeth. We bleach them. We hire cosmetic dentists to add veneers and pearly fake incisors and canines. We undergo plastic surgery to reshape our mouths for better toothiness.

We purchase volumes of over-the-counter dental products:

  • Seemingly limitless options for toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, and toothbrushes
  • At-home whitening strips
  • Picks and gels
  • Objects and creams and devices for multitudinous, often confusing purposes

I’ve even seen on-line dating profiles that require good teeth in a match.

Not so in other cultures.

Yes, many of these “advancements” are available in other countries, but they’re nowhere nearly as widely consumed. Rare will you find an ad for a “dental cosmetic surgeon.” And compared to the countless over-the-counter dental products our grocery and convenience stores offer, offerings in Europe seem anemic.

Of course, other cultures have other fixations. Light skin seems an obsession in Asian countries. A friend brought back underarm whitening cream from a trip to Thailand. And during a sojourn in the Greek Isles, I saw Japanese tourists in long sleeves and gloves holding parasols against the sun. If any store here sells underarm whitening cream, I haven’t visited it. And I last saw a parasol in a screening of “Gone with the Wind.”

What’s the most interesting cultural fixation you’ve noticed?

And this was just the toothpaste portion of the drug store aisle. Houston. June 8, 2013.