transformation watch


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. It’s 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 haven’t 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 craftman’s 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,” let’s call this.

Mr. Woolcott’s 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 supplier’s 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, I’m 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?

17 thoughts on “transformation watch

  1. Steve Portigal

    My local hygienist is heavily Russian-accented. During my first visit she asked me if I had ever thought of widening my teeth. I was very confused because at one point in my pre-teen years they actually did buzz off the sides of my teeth (technically narrowing them not widening them, but whatever). Eventually I figured out that she meant whitening, and I was rather turned off to be experiencing an upsell mixed in with supposed health-care.

    Once the for-profit motivation becomes so naked in the dental practice, how does the customer safely navigate the experience? We’re still caught up in a “protect me/correct me from cavities” model, but dental health has supposedly improved enough that they have to find other revenue streams.

    Tangential as always….

  2. LK

    Grant, I’m reminded of two things here…neither Goffmanian but both amusing (in my opinion anyway)

    1. Chris Rock’s “The Dark Side with Nat X” sketches from a decade or so ago on SNL. That anything black or dark in our culture is necessarily bad and anything white or light is necessarily desirable. Rock’s Nat X character referred to his show as “the only fifteen-minute show on TV. Why only fifteen? ‘Cause the Man would never give me an hour!” He goes on to explain that ‘the man’ is the same man that calls a black cat bad luck… the same man that gives that the white keys on the piano all the nice happy sounds and the black keys all bad and nasty. Perhaps Mary Douglas has something to say about this?

    2. A recent interview by savant anti-journalist Nardwuar with Snoop (formerly Dogg Dogg). Nardwuar ended the interview with the following ‘joke’.

    N: How does Snoop keep his whites their whitest?
    S: I dunno know man.
    N: He uses lots of blee-yotch

    PS Don’t feel bad about pondering teeth whitening; i just ready that Ozzy had a nose job and a facelift, and really that man should have so many other medical issues higher on the list.

  3. Steve Portigal

    Geez, the pop-culture ante has been upped. What do folks make out of the strangely sarcastic Orbit gum ads that emphasize the *ding* white sparkly teeth that you’ll get, staying clean in a dirty world, etc.?

  4. Matt

    I know some people find over-white teeth at least mildly creepy. Think of a Tony Robbins infomercial, and you’ll know the effect I mean.

    I don’t really think that the cosmetic obsession has spread all that much to different subcultures so much as the subcultures in which it was already present have sucked up a larger percentage of the population (and a yet larger share of the parent culture’s understanding of itself). Your rural acquaintance undoubtedly feels the same way about it now as he did then, and everyone he knows probably agrees with him.

  5. debbie

    Interesting bit of info: Teeth whitening has a strange side-effect of actually making your teeth more sensitive. Funny that in the process of making your teeth more sensitive, you are essentially de-sensitizing your own personality by “appearing” to be less accessible. Or at least on a different plane than the rest of us…or the few of us left that haven’t bleached our teeth…

    Such a great post, Grant. Thanks.

  6. spiny widgmo

    I think part of this is a relative reduction in cost and increase in the convenience of whitening. When a the cost of projecting health, fitness or wealth becomes cheaper, more people will adopt those markers.
    Tanning used to be a mark of poverty, only the wealthy could afford to stay out of the sun. Paleness was desirable because it was an indicator of wealth. Eventually most work occurred indoors and everyone was pale. As this happened, tanning was a marker of wealth and leasure time. Now anyone who want a tan can get one from a bottle, a trip to a tanning spa or quick getaway vacation. Tanning is effectively a useless marker anymore.
    As costmetic surgery and drug treatments improve I think you will see more of this occur.
    An interesting question. As we become more of a service economy, and good looks confer an economic advantage, will be see a race among the workers to keep ahead of the competition through cosmetic improvements? Further, will a marker of wealth and leisure be the ability to retain one’s ‘natural’ looks with no ill effects?

  7. Matthew Peek

    Whitening and celebrities are the same metaphor. A celebrity is a production of fantasy. The outwardly presented person is not a reflection of what is going on inside psychologically. They are the illusion of an ideal. Whitening, while mimicking this ideal allows ordinary people to present themselves as something they are not, in a dim parody of a celebrity: “Look at me. See how great I might be? This is how I want you to see me.”

    Your farmer friend stands out to you because he was the real McCoy. He wasn’t the product of any illusion that he was trying to present. He presented himself: an Emersonian meld of thought and action.

    Whitening (like so many other consumer products – think cheap BMW 3 series – or the rest of the Wally-World economy) allows the ordinary Joe and Jane to present themselves to the world as something fabulous without having to create anything substantial underneath. It’s a David Copperfield act that marketers perform on consumers and consumers perform on each other.

    You said it best yourself: “veneers have increased 250%”

    Now you’ve identified the symptom. What’s the disease? What’s the cure?

  8. Tom Guarriello

    “Aspirational” now encompasses a wide variety of signifiers, with accessories making up a substantial subset. Bags (Hermes), shoes (Blahnik, Choo), watches (Audemars Piguet) all instantly signal an individual’s inclusion in the “made it” club. It’s impossible to imagine someone in that club not sporting neon teeth. It has been de rigeur for a couple of years now, and is, of course, trickling down to the “masstige” level.

    I find it interesting that luminescent automobiles are also the biggest sellers, with silver again topping the list. This quest for a radiant glow reminds me of the rays which eminate from the heads and faces of Catholic saints. Things that glow have a vibrancy that we find otherworldly (spaceships pulsate…see Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Otherworldly…we like that. Above this world, not given to its vicissitudes…we like that, too.

    I think you’re on the right track by implying that we’re aspiring to elevate ourselves beyond our (mortal) bodies. Teeth? Relatively easy, and now cheap. Wrinkles? Nip/tuck. No problem. Check!

    Now, if only there was a way to bleach/snip away fear and ennui!

  9. lynne

    Good talking points everyone.
    I have, gasp, whitened my teeth. Nothing too fancy, just a box of Whitestrips now and then. The price was reasonable and it worked. I choose to buy that first box of Whitestrips because I had just quit smoking. I also cleaned/scrubbed my car, linens, clothes, etc.
    To cleanse yourself of something is just plain therapeutic.

  10. S

    “Now, if only there was a way to bleach/snip away fear and ennui!”

    The Sunday NYT (I can find the link if anyone wants it) had a piece on the cultural construction of “criminal” performance enhancement – why not put Ritalin and Beta Blockers in the same category as steroids?

  11. liz

    “allows the ordinary Joe and Jane to present themselves to the world as something fabulous without having to create anything substantial underneath. It’s a David Copperfield act that marketers perform on consumers and consumers perform on each other.”

    The mass-marketing of luxe, or I deSERVE it. I think that’s the dynamic behind masstige, I deSERVE luxury.

    Even the not-so-ordinary Joe & Jane. I suppose the celebrity debutante has been a fixture, off and on, for several decades. But really, the promenence of Paris Hilton seemed de trop to me–the end of the world as we know it– until I remembered there’ve been previous episodes of famous for nothing.

    I couldn’t remember Brenda Frazier’s name, so I searched for “celebrity debutante” and found

    Rites and Regalia of American Debdom
    Karal Ann Marling


    and that lead to

    The fast lane is littered with the wreckage of eager beavers ready to rev their engines in High Society. A few make it to the finish line relatively unscathed like Betsey Whitney. Then, there are those like Ann Woodward who find themselves without a helmet at crucial moments. And some, in particular, Brenda Frazier, experience engine trouble for the entire ride.

  12. me

    okay, tie me to the whipping post,
    i just bought some teeth strips. my dentist actually told me it would be a nice finishing touch to all of the dental work that has been done. ( 7 visits and 6 thousand dollers ) its been a gruelling 2 weeks, bridge repairs root canal,replacing old metal fillings, and 3 hrs of serious cleaning. i hope it doesnt make me unaproachable to the general public to have white teeth.

Comments are closed.