Prefatory note: Wow, the “what should Meg Whitman know about contemporary culture post proved to be quite a lot more time consuming that expected. Hope to post it next week.
On an emergency trip to the dentist yesterday, I learned that Americans have been whitening their teeth at such a furious pace that the makers of caps, crowns and in-fills cannot match the new American mouth. Their stuff just isn’t white enough.
According to the American Association of Cosmetic Dentistry, teeth whitening/bleaching has increased by over 300% in the past 5 years, direct bonding has increased by over 100% in the past 5 years, veneers have increased by over 250% in the past 5 years.
The trend to whiter teeth looks like a simple matter of vanity caught in an inflationary spiral. The moment any significant group of consumers whitens its teeth, all other consumers are obliged to follow suit. People who were once whitening for competitive advantage, now must whiten merely to sustain parity. Its the cold war all over again.
So the question is not “why so much whitening. Once this gets started, it will run its course. The question is “what was the ignition point that got things going.
I havent done the research here so what follows is surmise. But plainly there is an inclination to transformation in our culture that grows ever more powerful.
In the 1980s, I knew a man in his 80s. He was a plain spoken, hard working, Protestant corn farmer, smart as the dickens, and utterly true to rural form. He was the kind of guy who liked to read his way through an encyclopedia and then think about things with a craftmans care while out in the fields. I remember asking him a question about the rural economy. He hardly seemed to acknowledge the question, and, then, about 15 minutes later, he gave me an almost perfect recitation of the pertinent facts and figures. Just took him awhile to find the file. The thing about this guy is that for all his fierce and thorough intelligence, he looked like every other farmer in his neighborhood. I think of him as a kind of bench mark for the transformation culture. “Farm form, lets call this.
Mr. Woolcotts farm house was utterly unadorned despite the fact that he had lived there with his wife all his married life, raising 4 kids in the process. His clothing was whatever he happened to find at the local clothing store. I believe the motto here was: “nothing flashy. His idea of branding was wearing a baseball cap with a seed suppliers logo. His view of the body was interesting. God gave you one. You used it till you used it up. The idea of any kind of intervention, surgical, fashionable, cosmetic was unthinkable. I would dearly love to see his wonderfully unforthcoming face struggle to maintain blankness in the face of an off hand question, “So, Mr. Woolcott, Im thinking getting my teeth whitened. What do you think?
We are moving away from “farm form at something like light speed. In the place of the idea that “use your body up, we are now treat the body as a rough first approximation, variously to be reworked by exercise, surgery, clothing, and design of every kind. This is not the place to wring hands and regret the new, intoxicated inauthenticities of our culture. From an anthropological point of view, it is enough to say, ‘this is what cultures do from time to time and to wonder what it was the prompted our culture to do it now.
Some of it has to do with our admiration for celebrities. By this standard, all of us have teeth too dim. Joan Kron in her work on plastic surgery says that much of what we know about the medicine thereof comes out of Hollywood and the willingness of the stars of the early 20th century to submit themselves to experimental procedures. Celebrities became exemplars of transformation and they helped pioneer some of the techniques thereof.
But there must be a Goffmanian answer here, as well. Smiles are “dazzling, we are blinded by the light. Really dazzling smiles have the effect of making the smiler seem glamorous and a little inaccessible a little not of this world at least not of my world. And this is a strange thing because a smile is an opening of the body, and this has always been a dismantling of defenses and a invitation to approach. New, brighter, whiter smiles seem to send a double message: I am fabulous, you may approach me. Or it may be that here too, we wish to have our cake and eat it too, to appear sensational and approachable, the two at once. And when you think about it, celebrities, the ones who climb to real greatness, do manage to square this circle with apparent ease.
It’s also true that there are moments when we wish to be light bearing. Someone once told me that when she was interviewing celebrities she noted that they were always the brightest, whitest person in the room…it was as if, she said, the light was flowing from them. Then she noticed that the celebrities were always drinking water and she wondered whether there was not some connection. Hydrated skin was more light bearing.
It would be easy to say that we always want to be light bearing but there are moments in the West when this is the last thing that people want. We have a community in our midst that wants never to be light bearing: goths and of course tortured poets (when these are not the same person).
Why light bearing? What is “light” here in the cultural code of the moment? What is the act of bearing light (in the cultural code of the moment)? What attributions do we make to those who are light bearing?
There is lots more to puzzle over here but I have to get out into the field. I turn the question over to gifted readers. The question: why did we start whitening? What difference does this difference make? What penalty in the economy of glances do you pay if your teeth are, like mine, too dim. What advantage comes to those who have turned up the wattage? Is there any penalty for teeth that are too white? Can teeth be too white?