In American culture, it is very desirable to have teeth that align smoothly and are very white. Despite what dentists and orthodontists say, the changes made to teenagers and their teeth aren’t so much necessary as just upholding a modern cultural standard of beauty. With rare exception, most humans can still eat and speak just fine whether their teeth have been perfectly aligned or not.
When Westerners began formal contact with Japan in the mid-1800s they found that many Japanese women beautified their teeth by turning them black. This custom, called “ohagura,” was also found to have been practiced in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The overall belief behind the action was that wild animals and demons have white teeth and by darkening them, one would not be mistaken for an evil spirit. There is some evidence that tooth blackening also offered some dental protection chemically and those that had their teeth blackened suffered less tooth decay.
The latest twist in the American cultural standard of tooth beauty is removable gold teeth. Called “grills” this trend is moving from the rap music subculture to the mainstream with teenagers everywhere clamoring to have temporary gold caps made to fit their teeth. Grills got their name when the singular gold teeth grew to be the entire front four to six teeth in the mouth.
Actor Johnny Depp wore gold caps on some of his teeth as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. What was just an eccentricity of the first film became a fashion trend during the filming of the two sequels with Depp having the gold teeth bonded to his own for the duration of the extended multi-year shoot. They were then visible during candid and press appearances to promote the film, spurring further interest in the practice.
Many in the dental and jewelry industry are scrambling to promote this practice, offering all manner of fang-like variations or embedded jewels to the caps. Worn continuously, these grills can promote tooth decay, stopping the natural cleansing flow of saliva over the teeth and increasing bacterial growth on the enamel surface. Only time will tell if this is just a temporary trend, or a cultural practice that is here to stay.