Despite what Hollywood wants you to believe, the American expectation that teeth should be a lustrous white is — quite literally — inhuman. Our chompers are naturally more of a cream color, and only cosmetic treatments can make them a gleaming white. Regardless, our preference for oral perfection not only encourages people to endure unnecessary procedures for the sake of meeting cultural norms, it also brings intense shame upon those who are unable to meet such high standards.
“I’ve had dental issues since I was born,” says 15-year-old Andy (an alias to protect his privacy). “My bottom teeth are ahead of my top ones, which causes chewing problems that make eating meat almost impossible, and I’ve always had crooked teeth. When I was around eight years old, the adult teeth that came in after my baby ones created a weird, vampirish look — like a mix between a vampire and a 60-year-old truck driver who’s never seen a dentist in his life. Since my teeth became like that, I haven’t had the warm feeling that laughing or even smiling gives you.”
The condition of Andy’s teeth also impedes his social life. “When someone tells a joke or shows me a funny meme, I try to keep myself from opening my mouth, because I know if I laugh and show my teeth, people will make a sour face and form an ugly impression of me,” he explains. “You might think, ‘Dude, just stop caring about what others think and live your life.’ But it’s not that easy. When I open my mouth to laugh and smile, my vampirish teeth hit my lips and automatically remind me of how ugly they are.” Andy also believes his oral status prevents him from dating, “since straight teeth are the standard for most people.”
While the simple answer to Andy’s problems might be going to the dentist, the fact that he’s a teenager with problematic jaws prevents him from receiving the necessary treatments. “I went to the best dentists in the country,” he explains, “and their answers were all the same: Since I’m in my teenage years and my jaws are growing too fast, I can’t use any kinds of braces.”
As Andy has already shared in detail, the impact his teeth have on his overall well-being is immense. “I’m pretty sad that my teenage years, the most important years of my life, will pass without me feeling a bit of joy,” he reiterates.
This low self-esteem is not uncommon for someone with bad teeth, as psychologist and psychotherapist Jeanette Raymond previously explained to me when looking at the impact of our social expectations. “Yellowish or off-white teeth indicate aging, neglect and germs,” she said. “Whereas white teeth show that you’re appropriately put together, and that you take care of yourself.” Again, this isn’t actually true, but these are the stigmas our society has developed, and it’s surprisingly easy to just believe them, meaning that they have a serious effect on people.
Raymond also mentioned, however, that coming to terms with your teeth is less about putting in extra effort and more about looking inward, especially in cases where there’s not much you can do: “Grooming is an important part of feeling confident, but it’s temporary. Confidence is more about your belief in yourself than whether or not you have a clean mouth.”
As for actually dealing with bad teeth, prevention through basic oral hygiene — brushing at least twice a day and flossing regularly — is your best bet. But if you already have problems with your mouth, like Andy does, visiting a dentist is really the only viable option.
For everyone else, consider rethinking your impression of “perfect” white teeth and how you treat those who are unable to meet those standards — those without access to adequate dental insurance, for example. “If you have straight teeth — actually, they don’t even have to be straight — if you can laugh without anything bugging you and can feel some joy, be thankful for it,” Andy says. “And if someone around you is having similar issues to mine, please be gentle with them.”