Straight, white teeth as a social prerogative

Sociol Health Illn. 2015 Jun;37(5):782-96. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12238. Epub 2015 Apr 29.


A distinguishing feature of North American society is preoccupation with self-image, as seen in the ritualistic nature of bodily practices aimed at constantly improving the body. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the prevailing fixation with straight, white teeth. While there is an ever-expanding literature on the sociology of body, very little has been written on teeth in this context. Using literature from anthropology, biology, dentistry, sociology and social psychology, this study attempts to answer: (1) Why have straight, white teeth become a beauty ideal in North American society? (2) What is the basis for this ideal? (3) How is this ideal propagated? It demonstrates that dental aesthetic tendencies are biologically, culturally and socially patterned. Concepts from the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault are used to illustrate how straight, white teeth contribute towards reinforcing class differences and how society exercises a disciplinary power on individuals through this ideal. It is concluded that modified teeth are linked to self and identity that are rooted in social structure. Moreover, teeth demonstrate the ways in which class differences are embodied and projected as symbols of social advantage or disadvantage. Implications on professional, public health, sociological and political levels are considered.

Keywords: Dentistry; North American society; Self-image; Social advantage; Straight, white teeth.

MeSH terms

  • Beauty*
  • Culture*
  • Esthetics, Dental
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • North America
  • Self Concept*
  • Social Stigma
  • Sociology, Medical
  • Tooth*