A Point Of View: Mouthing off

  • 28 September 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Young woman brushing her teeth in the 1930s

Modern society is on the hunt for better teeth, but what is it that makes our pearly whites so alluring, asks Sarah Dunant.

As southern Europe cools down after its sizzling summer, the streets of Florence where I work part of the year have started to buzz with new arrivals out of the West: young men and women - though girls always outnumber the boys - on semester from American universities, eager to experience the city's artistic past and its nightlife present.

The girls tend to travel in chattering packs. They stand taller than most Florentines, with long, sleek hair and wide generous mouths, moulded by years of orthodontic work to showcase the most dazzling smiles: teeth as white as sets of shining marble tombstones.

For moneyed Americans, perfect dentistry is a matter of course. When they venture out to local markets or mix with the older Florentines in bars or cafes I suspect they are taken aback by how other people's mouths don't come up to their standard.

Probably they don't register how we (I include myself - for my teeth are a more European affair) - stare at them in similar disbelief.

It's partly that we outnumber them. Not only in the present. The artistic revolution that marked Florence as the cauldron of the Renaissance covered its walls with vibrant images of its citizens; an unprecedented commentary of life and looks 500 years ago.

Inside the excuse of Biblical stories you meet all manner of Florentines, young, old, important, unknown, rich, poor, beautiful and ugly. But when it comes to open-mouthed smiles there are almost none on display.

The acme of female beauty around this time was golden hair, dark eyes, lily-white skin and rose or pomegranate lips. Teeth if mentioned are tiny pearls glimpsed under the upper lip.

The most reproduced woman of Western art, Mary, mother of God, never really opens her mouth at all, even when a miracle is happening.

In Renaissance art, the annunciation - a moment where some joy might seem in order - is actually a study of a woman's complex emotional, spiritual journey: fear, incomprehension, wonder and quiet acceptance. To crack a big smile would be - well - too forward.

In portraits of ordinary men and women, smiles are equally rare. Being recorded for posterity was a serious business.

We could do a whole point of view on Mona Lisa's teasing little pout (Giorgio Vasari, 50 years later and not always reliable, writes that Da Vinci, while he was painting her "employed singers and musicians to keep her full of merriment".)

Image caption Mary is not often pictured smiling, even when witnessing miracles

More telling perhaps are the Venuses that follow her. After Botticelli come an army of bathing, sleeping, lounging beauties covered only by their hair and then not even by that. Titian's famous Venus of Urbino, is brash enough to stare directly out from the canvas making eye contact - clearly modesty had its limits. Her lips however stay compressed.

I know what you're thinking. Tooth decay. Bad breath. They don't show their teeth in the past, because they all went black and fell out early.

Well, certainly there is some truth in that. Recipes for preserving and whitening teeth are everywhere, everyone from Hildegard of Bingen to Nostradamus - fennel, lovage, mint, rubbing with salt and sage, rinsing with alcohol, all have recognisable elements of modern mouth hygiene, though pulverising crystal, marble, glass, cuttlefish bone, fragmented pearls and riverbed stones into a paste makes one doubt Nostradamus' accuracy in others area of prediction.

The first recognisable manufactured toothbrush arrives in Europe in the late 18th century, and proper toothpaste only really gets going after the Second World War.

But before we get too smug about modernity, we should factor in that it was the arrival of sugar as part of everyday diet that really accelerated rot. Forget whiteness and start contemplating the exquisite agony of toothache.

History again was on our side. The first ever public surgery using anaesthetic took place in 1846 in Boston general hospital (in a theatre now known as the ether dome). The procedure? The removal of a tumour in the neck. The surgeon: a dentist.

Back for a moment to those mouths of the past. Because that coyness when it comes to teeth - certainly female - is rich in subtext. The image of toothy open mouths - smiling or not - denote something - well something more predatory and sexual.

Let me be elliptically crude for a moment.

Think Chaucer's wife of Bath: large hips, scarlet stockings, a string of husbands and - very important - gap teeth: a sure sign to other pilgrims of possible lasciviousness.

Then there is that most dangerous of all women in mythology, Medusa. So horribly lovely - wild writhing snakes for hair - that she can only be safely viewed - and slaughtered - by reflection. Images of Medusa's decapitated head - from classical Greek through the great masters are unmissable: gaping mouth, teeth bared in violent fury.

Image caption The Wife of Bath: "God bad us for to wexe and multiplye"

Think Vampires - always most alluring in the body of lovely young women eager to test their canines on a male neck. Or the even more potent myth of vagina dentata - I trust you can manage that translation - the ultimate male nightmare which so continues to fascinate and appal that only few years ago it surfaced again in a rather splendid independent American movie - half comedy, half horror.

And finally imagine, if you will, those images of Monica Lewinsky that sped around the world: the young eager intern, flowing dark locks and wide generous mouth rising up from the crowd to greet the President of America, a man she would be happy to serve in whatever way she could.

Whether we are discussing the past or the present, the open smiling female mouth, carries with it definite psychosexual power.

How even more fascinating then to remember that perfect American teeth arrived during what masquerades as the chirpiest, cleanest decade of all - the 1950's. What provoked it? Well, certainly Americans were brushing more - GI's brought the institutionalised habit back from the army.

Image caption Mitzi Gaynor was renowned both for her smile and her hair-washing abilities

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.

A fair number - like me - were born with what seemed to be too many teeth for their mouths. (While I don't want to bring Richard Dawkins into this - because he does get everywhere - I do find the evolutionary pace of change when it comes to teeth a bit of a disappointment. I mean it's been millennia since we regularly gnawed at the bones of bison. Surely things should have gone a bit faster).

I had four teeth extracted and a brace which, alas, didn't really do the job. Two generations on, ideas and technology have started to shift. Now rather than simply getting rid of the teeth you can widen the jaw. Millimetre by uncomfortable millimetre. We are edging ever closer to the American smile, though given the price it is not for everyone.

Many would argue our mouths are already a lost cause: You can wear out shoe leather in some parts of the country before finding a dentist willing to take on NHS patients.

In the years before the economic downturn thousands of dentists went private claiming that there was no financial incentive to do what they saw as necessary work. Latest statistics show the recession has hit private dentistry worse that the NHS, but patient figures are down in both and with diet often linked to income and a rapidly aging population the omens are not good.

But if the opposite - the thought of an army of wide-mouthed shining teeth - alarms you more, then there is hope.

You have probably yet to hear of "Yaeba". It means "double tooth" in Japanese and the Yaeba look - the choice of number of Japanese fashionista teenage girls - involves cosmetically altering their canine teeth to make them appear more crooked - like the overcrowded look of a young mouth before expensive orthodontics gets to work.

I await the arrival of this in my local Florence bar with interest. Until then my lips are sealed. Rather like all those older Florentines on the walls around me.

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