From Photoshopped curves to spray-tanned bodies, today’s teenagers look to the cover of magazines for their definition of beauty. Not only do teens seek to emulate the unrealistic body proportions and sun-kissed skin of the models, cover models exhibit radiant smiles: straight, porcelain-white teeth, clear of any flaws or imperfections.
In contrast to countries such as Britain or Ireland who traditionally prefer “natural smiles” — natural in color and alignment — Americans aim to sport a smile that reveals uniform white teeth.
“Americans have the idea uniformity is equivalent to looking good,” said Professor Liz Kay, dean of the Peninsula Dental School in Exeter and Plymouth in an article published by BBC News. “Americans don’t mind this unnaturally white look. They are wearing a smile as a badge.”
With America’s growing obsession to obtain the “perfect set of teeth,” teenagers and adults are purchasing whitening kits or spending thousands of dollars on dental braces.
In a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Orthodontists, the number of Americans ages 17 and under with braces nearly doubled in the past decade, growing from 2.6 million adolescents in 1989 to more than 4.6 million today.
“You would look on billboards only to see a person smiling with perfectly white, straight teeth,” junior Pedro Loaiza-Sanchez said. “There’s definitely more pressure on teens now to have a nice smile.”
But it isn’t only the patients that are noticing the obsession with perfect teeth. Orthodontists are seeing the increase in patients desiring braces for cosmetic purposes.
“There are patients we see who want dental braces for cosmetic purposes only,” Dr. Christopher Parker, a local orthodontist at Brookside Orthodontics, said. “They see people with extremely white or straight teeth in today’s advertisements and want to have their teeth look like that as well.”
With trending social media apps such as Instagram or Snapchat that allow teenagers to post “selfies” regularly, the feeling of being judged more closely on these popular networks is not new.
In the online Teen Confidence Survey sponsored by Invisalign Brand, 96 percent of U.S. teens who are not satisfied with their smile are insecure about their appearance. Out of this percentage, over 47 percent of those who post selfies on social media think about whether their smile looks good before uploading a picture of themselves.
“On social media I actually pay a lot of attention to my smile because of course I want it to be perfect,” senior Brandon Nguyen said. “[During freshman year] I felt insecure about my smile because I was awkward and scared of people being judgmental.”
For other students, peer pressure led them to reconsider their smile.
“I didn’t mind my teeth at first,” sophomore Kristen Phan said. “But then other people began getting braces to get nice teeth, and I felt like I should get them too.”
In addition to being a beauty trait, straight teeth are seen as signs of prosperity and success.
“My parents have suggested I get braces […] they believe that without perfect teeth people won’t become successful,” senior Sang Vo said. “But I don’t feel insecure about my smile because I know my teeth aren’t really messed up.”
Some students believe that they should be able to smile confidently and at ease without the fear of society’s criteria for the perfect teeth. Other believe that it is nearly impossible to feel comfortable about their smile when an imperfect one is considered as a social stigma.
“In magazines there’s always girls with the perfect body and smile,” sophomore Anjolie Ngim said. “I see this and I feel insecure about my teeth. I would cover my smile because of my teeth.”
Beside the use of dental braces for teeth alignment, teeth whitening kits are growing in popularity and are the top-requested cosmetic service today according to the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. Americans spent more than $1.4 billion on over-the-counter teeth-whitening products last year alone.
Although this procedure may be more inexpensive than dental braces, its long-term damages on the teeth such as the weakening and thinning of the tooth enamal surpassses its benefits.
A study by the Journal of the American Dental Association found half of people who bleached their teeth experienced temporary sensitivity from whitening treatments, from mild tingling to even burning gums. As the cosmetic industry has shown, though, people are willing to undergo much pain in the pursuit of perfection.
Teenagers and adults still face an undeniably large pressure to look like the models on magazine covers; however, just as airbrushed filters and face-editing apps increase, the body-appreciation hashtags and no-makeup selfies emerge as well. Teenagers are slowly but surely becoming more accepting of their flaws.
“If we all had the perfect smile then nobody would be unique,” Vo said. “I feel that imperfections make a person who they are and they should keep it that way.”