Culture Bites

This article first appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 7-20 March 2014 in ‘My Word’. It also appeared on The Big Issue blog. Photos are the author’s own.
The author in 1976, before braces killed her prospects as a Lao beauty queen

The author in 1976, before braces killed her prospects as a Lao beauty queen

I was a fluoride baby. Before Melbourne’s water supply was fluoridated the 1970s, my pharmacist father was dosing me with little pink pills. Combined with twice-daily brushing, my teeth grew strong and white. And crooked.

My parents subsequently spent a small fortune on braces and I endured two years of pain and discomfort to be transformed from a snaggletoothed teenager into a young woman whose smile revealed perfectly straight, white teeth. Ergo, I was undeniably more attractive.

Or so I thought. My first doubts came when I was living in Laos in the early 1990s. One day I found a stack of postcards featuring portraits of the women crowned Miss Lao New Year in the country’s annual Nangsoukhane beauty pageant. The most recent winner had eyeteeth so prominent  they were impossible to miss. So had her predecessor, and also the previous year’s winner. A local friend explained that prominent eyeteeth in women—deemed by my Australian orthodontist an aberration to be ‘corrected’—was considered a sign of great beauty in Laos.

2008 Beauty pageant finalists in Vang Vieng, Laos

2008 Beauty pageant finalists in Vang Vieng, Laos

Sure enough, I remember asking a Lao man in a bar in the capital, Vientiane, why he kept hassling a young woman in our group who was clearly not interested in him. He sighed, ‘It’s her teeth.’

The woman in question had fangs to rival Count Dracula. To think, had it not been for braces, I, too, might have enjoyed such unwanted attentions in Laos. I consoled myself with the thought that at least my teeth, if unfashionably straight, were still attractively white in that part of the world, where so many people’s teeth went grey as a result of being overdosed with anti-malarial medication as children.

Wrong again. At a regional conference with young people from all over South East Asia, it was my grey-toothed Vietnamese colleague with whom the handsome boys flirted most ardently.

1908 postcard of a women from Tonkin (Hanoi) with blackened teeth

1908 postcard of a women from Tonkin (Hanoi) with blackened teeth

I’ve since learned it was once customary in parts of Southeast Asia for people to blacken their teeth. Anthropologists think teeth-darkening practices, such as lacquering and chewing betel nut probably had oral health benefits. But teeth-blackening was also associated with beauty, sophistication and a desire to distinguish oneself from dogs, demons and evil spirits.

New-Zeland born Caron Eastgate James captures this in her 1999 novel The Occidentals, set in 19th-century Siam: “No self-respecting Siamese…would allow his or her teeth to remain white. Some, particularly the wealthier women, used a black pigment to colour any spots that were not perfectly darkened, for—as the old Siamese saying went—’any dog can have white teeth.'”

While the smiles on the current crop of Thai celebrities suggest straight, white teeth are in, and foreign ‘dental tourists’ flock to Thailand to get their teeth whitened at clinics with names like Dental White and Beauty Smile, I can’t help wondering how long the trend will last. And I believe that, for some hilltribe peoples in the region, teeth-blackening has never gone out of fashion.

Yaeba smile

Yaeba smile

Speaking of fashion, I recently read in Hannah Kent’s 2013 debut novel, Burial Rites, set in 19th-century Iceland, that snaggletooth was once considered to be “evidence of the devil” along with harelips and birthmarks. I should have stopped there, out of respect for the orthodontics that spared me from an “outward hint of evil”. But, curious to learn more about snaggletooth, I started Googling (as you do), only to discover that snaggletooth is so popular in Japan, people get their straight teeth capped to look crooked, a procedure known as tsuke yaeba (attached snaggletooth). It seems that snaggletooth make the wearer look cute. The trend even gave rise to the formation in 2012 of the world’s first snaggletooth girl group, TYB48. Their debut CD was called Mind If I Bite?

I’m not making this up.

Turns out Japan is also a country where teeth-blackening was practiced up to the early 20th century.

I haven’t the heart to tell my parents they ruined my chances of ever competing in a Lao beauty pageant or joining a snaggletooth girl group in Japan. Or that I might have once been mistaken for a dog in old Siam. I do take comfort, however, in the thought that somewhere in the world at some point in history, my now straightish, whitish teeth with one recessed central incisor will be considered absolutely perfect.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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12 Responses to Culture Bites

  1. I LOVE this post Angela. I spent many years wearing a ‘plate’ at night that never seemed to fit, and was agonising. When I first wore it at school, no-one could understand a word I was saying, including the principal who thought I was being insolent. I lost it in the bin at boarding school once – scraped it into the scraps and didn’t even notice. I gave up on it in the end as the dentist seemed to want to experiment forever. I have a bit of a thing for crooked teeth. My fella has them. I like gaps too.

    Like

    • angelasavage says:

      Ha! Kirsten, it appears we share a thing for crooked teeth and gaps. I especially love a gap between the front teeth (diastema). Shame we are not generally inclined as a culture to appreciate the beauty in imperfection – unlike the Japanese, who have an aesthetic, Wabi-sabi, that honours the beauty in imperfect, impermanent, worn and incomplete things. (See The Fine Colour of Rust by PA O’Reilly).

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  2. Angela – I did the whole braces/flouride thing too. To me it is absolutely fascinating what one or another culture views as essential to beauty. It’s reflective in my opinion of the profound effect culture has on the way that we see the world. I do have straight teeth now, but a beauty queen? Nope.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Margot, I share your fascination with what different cultures consider as essential to beauty – and how totally at odds such standards can be. As a friend of mine said, it’s nice to be reminded that beauty is relative – you’d be beauty queen somewhere in the world 😉

      Like

  3. Angela Meyer (LiteraryMinded) says:

    Fascinating, Angela! I had years of braces, including a horrible wire at the back of my throat which made me gag, literally, for twelve months. It was torturous. I still have huge, prominent teeth, and have always been self-conscious of them (probably partly due to having so much attention paid to them as a teenager). It’s genetic – my uncle had his teeth filed down and my grandmother had all of hers out. I wonder what I’ll do if my kids inherit ‘the jaw’ as well? I love learning about different cultural perceptions of beauty, though, it shows how much our tastes are conditioned.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Angela, it’s strange how different the ways we see ourselves and the way others see us: I’ve always thought if your dazzling, toothsome smile as highly attractive. Damn those orthodontists and with their conditioned tastes and their limited imaginations.

      Like

  4. kathy d. says:

    You were adorable! Your teeth looked fine to my non-orthodontist self.
    I have bad teeth, but the bite is fine. I’ve just lost several of them, and refuse
    to get implants, so far. I’ve adapted, but will probably have to face hard decisions
    at some point. Meanwhile, I live in denial.
    I had no idea about teeth, snaggle-toothed or darkened, are symbols of beauty
    in different cultures. See what this blog can teach a reader!
    And, also, here I am adding another book to my groaning TBR pile. Every time
    I visit, another title is added. This time it’s The Occidentals.
    I know nothing about Siam, except what I saw about 5 times in the movie,
    Anna and the King of Siam, with Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr.

    Like

    • angelasavage says:

      Funny you should mention The King and I, Kathy. The author of The Occidentals, Caron Eastgate Dann (formerly James) – who is a new friend of mine – is currently working on a novel about Anna Leonowens, whose (false) ‘memoir’ formed the basis of the movie. ‘The King and I’ is still banned in Thailand to this day.

      Like

  5. kathy d. says:

    False memoir? You mean she wrote it and didn’t tell the truth, or someone else changed it to make it popular?

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  6. kathy d. says:

    I just read up about Anna Leonowens’ memoirs and the novel based on them. The real history would be good to publish.

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