My Word: Culture Bites

5 May 2014 Angela Savage

My Word: Culture Bites

Angela Savage, Ed#453, March 2013

Angela Savage gets her teeth stuck into some pointedly different beauty treatments.

I was a fluoride baby. Before Melbourne’s water supply was fluoridated in 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 so as 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 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.

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 his sights 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 Southeast Asia, it was my grey-toothed Vietnamese colleague with whom the handsome boys flirted most ardently.

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 Zealand-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 latest 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.

Speaking of fashion, I recently read in Hannah Kent’s 2013 debut novel, Burial Rites, set in 19th-century Iceland, that a 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, some 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 a 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 once have 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.

» Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based writer who has lived and travelled throughout Asia. Her latest novel, The Dying Beach, was published last year.

This article first appeared in Ed#453 of The Big Issue magazine.