The Impossible Standards of a Smile

Helmut Gevert |
Helmut Gevert |

By Sarah Landrum

When you look in the mirror, you probably smile. Why? When we smile, we believe we look the most beautiful. However, the smile has been widely criticized for thousands of years. A natural smile, one that has not been altered from its original state, doesn’t seem to fit beauty standards.

Is that fair?

Isn’t a smile in itself beautiful enough? What society has told us are imperfections do not make our smiles any less incredible. Our smiles are wonderful because of their unique qualities, not in spite of them.

Even so, the world continues to tell us that what makes our smiles unique are imperfections that need to be fixed. We’re hit with a barrage of messages urging us to undergo painful and unnecessary procedures to get a set of cookie-cutter chompers, all so we can fit their definition of beautiful. That definition, wherever it comes from, is absurd.

And it’s time that it’s fixed.

The Beauty Standards of the Smile

Teens usually have, or have had, braces because we’ve been told that crooked teeth are considered unattractive. The same goes for an overbite, underbite, or spacing between the teeth, which requires a retainer — or, for some people, oral surgery. Americans spend as much as $2.75 billion every year on cosmetic dentistry procedures, which means they are spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars each. Why?

While braces and oral surgery can help alleviate some legitimate health concerns, that’s not always the case. And certain other smile standards have no bearing in health at all.

Oh, the need for pearly whites. Ancient Egyptians were the first people to believe that white teeth were beautiful. The truth is that teeth are naturally off-white, and there’s no need to bleach them. History and society have made us obsessed with stained teeth by saying that if teeth aren’t white, they are disgusting, and you should never show them off.

The teeth-whitening market has exploded because of these claims, and it continues to use them in its advertising. Regardless of what these advertisers say, though, teeth are beautiful when they are healthy, and they are healthy when they are properly cared for — not when they are as white as a ghost. People have the idea that teeth that aren’t perfectly white are that way because they aren’t brushed or cared for, but that’s not true. Properly caring for your teeth — brushing and flossing twice a day — won’t always leave them stark white.

And this carries over to people without braces as well. People who either can’t afford braces or who choose not to get them are often stigmatized as less hygienic, less intelligent, and all around less of a person. Think of the “hillbilly teeth” you can buy at the Halloween store — stereotypical representations of people from low-income areas often play up un-straightened, un-whitened teeth. The appearance of teeth have created a whole mess of class connotations that are unwarranted and unfair.

More Than Just Teeth

A smile goes beyond teeth, and so do the impossible standards. To society, the bigger the lips, the better the smile. Celebrities head to their plastic surgeons to get their lips pumped full of collagen. Some of us use lipsticks and glosses to achieve similar results. Why? Society has decided that big lips equal attractiveness, especially when we smile.

Where did this idea come from? Anthropologist Jamie Gordon from the Culture Agency in Atlanta says, “When you look at the anthropological history of the female body and sexuality, full lips signal not only sensuality, but being excited about having sex.” This may come from the lips of the vagina swelling when women are aroused, which is a natural, biological response.

Is that really something we want to stand for? It’s just another way to sexualize and objectify women. And how did our poor lips get involved in the first place, when all they tried to do was give us the ability to speak? Maybe we should use them to speak up, and out, against society’s bullshit standards.

If our lips could speak for themselves, this is surely one they wouldn’t be happy with: the no-hair-on-the-upper-lip standard. This inevitable part of being human, facial hair, has always been a source of anguish for women. Hair on the upper lip has been removed as far back as 1900 BC in the Far East.

Women are expected to fight this part of their face, while men are allowed, and even encouraged, to embrace it. Some women hide in bathrooms, ashamed to admit they have a mustache. Again, why? Some BS about gender roles and the presentation of femininity? Screw that! Rip the hair off if you want, but there’s really no need to hide. Because guess what? We all have that hair there — some of us more than others, but that’s OK.

So What Do We Do?

It’s difficult to go against the beauty standards of the United States and the world. It’s easy to accept what others believe is beautiful, because we want others to accept us and think we are beautiful and worthy. The question that we all need to ponder, though, is whether the world’s definitions of beauty are worth the sacrifice.

In a world where we’re looking at ourselves constantly, especially with our collective selfie obsession, it can be hard to love our bodies, faces, and smiles. We see celebrities with their “perfect” smiles and yearn for the same, even though that “perfect” may not be natural. In fact, in most cases it’s not: Celebrities are getting cosmetic work done left and right.

But that doesn’t mean we need to.

We may yearn for their dreamy smiles, but we could also yearn to be real, rather than just a reflection of beauty standards deeply rooted in history.

It’s time we bring beauty back to us, so that each one of us owns it. What is beautiful to you? You are beautiful. You — with your off-white teeth, crooked teeth, normal lips, and waxed or un-waxed upper lip. Embrace your smile, in its natural state, because it reflects your feelings and your zest for life, not because of how it makes your face look.

You deserve to be healthy and happy. Do what you need to do — not because it’s part of our collective beauty standards, but because it’s what you want. This way, each of us can start to change the impossible beauty paradox into one that is personal, individual, and achievable by us all.

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