Some preferences and prejudices are so deeply ingrained that often we don’t even realize we are harboring them. And even if we are consciously aware of them, the correctness of our particular perspective on the matter seems so patently obvious that it doesn’t even occur to us that anyone else in the developed Western world could have a differing view, because, how could they? Why would they? They couldn’t, and they wouldn’t. Right?
When one is suddenly confronted with a radically differing view of something (regardless of, or perhaps because of however mundane it may be) that couldn’t possibly have a differing view, the shock of it rattles to the core. First, because you are caught off-guard - you can’t be prepared for something you didn’t know existed. Second, because without warning, you have an entirely different world view of the matter to contemplate. And in situations where the long-term, ruminating over it for years type of contemplation is not required, it still might be something that stops you in your tracks (literally), and demands that you drop whatever you’re doing and contemplate it right now.
One of my so-deeply ingrained-it’s-below-my-radar prejudices got hit with a brick recently on the seemingly mundane subject of teeth. It happened when I read a passage in a book about the late, great British cellist Jacqueline Du Pre.** In the Winter of 1967-68, Jackie’s sister, Hilary, relates that Jackie said the following while relating tales of her experiences giving concerts in America:
‘You know, Hil, I’m fascinated by American mouths’, she suddenly announced, changing the subject completely. ‘Rows of perfect teeth, set in a hideous grin and a gushing “aren’t we pals” expression.’
Her mouth stretched to reveal a mass of grinning teeth, as she pranced around the kitchen.
What?! A Brit making disparaging remarks about American teeth? Granted, the statement is mostly a reflection on the socio-cultural differences between the British and Americans, but it’s the physical appearance of our teeth that lends the genuine creepiness factor, not the behavior. That a British person would find one of our most prized physical characteristics to be the icing on the altogether off-putting cake that is an American never even entered my mind. The Brits don’t make fun of our teeth, we make fun of theirs. That’s the order of things.
Or so I thought.
Speaking from the experience of having only lived in urban, not rural areas, I can say that without a doubt, most (urban) Americans not only love straight teeth, but expect reasonably straight teeth, both for themselves and the people around them. Any well-functioning adult below the age of 65 and above the poverty line who has noticeably crooked teeth, a severely yellowed tooth (or teeth), or a missing tooth (or teeth) stands out as much as if that person were wearing a propeller beanie in the board room. That Americans have a long tradition of making fun of “bad” teeth, particularly of the British variety, and that it has been a staple of our collective humor for decades (if not longer), illustrates the depth and pervasiveness of the American distain for crooked teeth.
On one episode of The Simpsons, Lisa is told that she needs braces. The dentist, in order to emphasize the the seriousness of the matter, pulls out a book entitled The Big Book of British Smiles. The book showed page after page of smiling Brits with ghastly teeth, each more vile than the one before.
In the Austin Powers movie, one of the biggest gags rested on the fact that Austin was a sex symbol in Britain in the 1960’s, before his 1990’s American dental makeover.
For American-on-American tooth insult violence, on the hit 70’s show Sanford and Son, while trading insults with his sister-in-law and arch enemy, Esther, the accusation of “snaggle-tooth” was oft tossed around (Esther to Fred, it memory serves). The insult was cutting both because of our deeply held prejudices against crooked teeth as well as its negative associations with being poor.
I didn’t realize it until reading that book passage, but I had been operating under the assumption that the British envied our straight American teeth. It never occurred to me that beyond being “used to’ teeth that are not entirely perfect, they might actually like it that way - every smile being truly unique instead of relatively uniform like ours. Huh. Who knew?
Jaqueline Du Pre is said to have made that statement some 40 years ago. Sweet Lord Astaroth, what would she be saying now, with all the technical advances in dentistry - Da Vinci veneers being slapped on teeth that are perfectly fine, just not “perfect”, and tooth-whitening done to unnatural extremes? Truth be told, these days, even I’m a little creeped-out by American smiles.
Photo compliments of EMI Classics
**From the book A Genius in the Family, by Hilary and Piers Du Pre; passage quoted from the chapter, “Retreat from the World”.
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