I wonder if the jockey Liam Treadwell knew that he had bad teeth, before Clare Balding mentioned it. “He hasn’t got the best teeth in the world,” she burbled to the little fellow, and to anybody else watching the Grand National on Saturday. “But you can afford to go and get them done now if you like.” Treadwell looked shocked. Maybe he was embarrassed. But maybe he just didn’t know. Often, British men just don’t. Hence Austin Powers. We Brits are fortunate in that we don’t spend our teenage years looking as if we’re vomiting coathangers, but unfortunate in that we end up looking like, well, Brits. Pre-globilisation, this probably didn’t matter much. Before anybody had seen Friends, nobody cared if you had a mouth filled with what looked like the broken ends of lollipop sticks. As a teenager, my most promiscuous friend had a middle tooth. True story. Outside of countries that were suffering actual famines, only Brits would stand for this sort of thing.
The established caricature of Tony Blair – all beaming perfect teeth in a huge smile – probably makes no sense at all if you come from anywhere else. Blair’s teeth are appalling. The more stressed he got towards the end, the more that one, tricky posterior tooth seemed to recede back into his mouth. Kate Moss, likewise, can only be considered one of the most desirable women in the world until she opens her mouth. It’s grisly in there. Like King’s Cross in the middle of the night.
Only in Britain are too-perfect teeth considered sinister. The point at which Cheryl Cole got her teeth sorted out, clearly, was the point at which the chaps from Stepford took possession of her soul. Simon Cowell and Esther Rantzen both have teeth so well-tended that they are actually terrifying.
Hollywood is littered with films rendered absurd because the actors have teeth that are far too good for their roles. Christian Slater as a medieval monk (The Name of the Rose). Mel Gibson as William Wallace (Braveheart). Hilary Swank as an actual, honest-to-God boxer (Million Dollar Baby).
In America, nobody notices that this is a problem, because nobody remembers that bad teeth even exist. And, some day soon, we’ll be just the same. When I was younger, dentists used to tell me, quite approvingly, that I had teeth like Madonna. These days they sniff, and ask why I never had a brace. Clare Balding is a sports journalist, for God’s sake. They’re officially the least fashionable people this side of Alan Partridge. Truly, Britain has changed.
We Americans are whiter than white
I grew up in the States, coming of age tooth-wise in a seaside town north of Boston. It was around 7th grade (year 8) that the metal really started. By then, you were in the tiny minority if you weren’t wired up to some sort of contraption, instilling your orthodontic values firmly and forever. This was largely down to the mad amounts of pain and inconvenience caused by braces, and the fact that everyone had them.
But the result is that all my school chums now have uniformly perfect teeth. We all still go to the hygienist at least every six months for a vigorous clean. The dentist is a normal part of our personal upkeep. And we love smiling for pictures.
Soon after I came to the UK to university, I began looking for a dentist for my regular cleanings. I’d assumed it wouldn’t be so different from asking where the best local Chinese food was or, for that matter, a GP. Instead, I was shocked to discover that either people told a horror story of that time ten years ago when they lost a tooth in a riding accident and had to go the dentist, or they just looked blank. I discovered that most people here haven’t been to the dentist for years – and cheerfully admit to it. To me, that’s like saying you don’t use computers, or you boil your water over an open fire and use outdoor toilets.
The proof is in the pudding: British teeth are so riddled with over and underbites, crowding, swollen gums, discolouration and erratic spacing that, for self-preservation, I have stopped looking too closely at British mouths.
Still, occasionally I am overcome, such as at the recent dinner party with my boyfriend’s colleagues. I couldn’t take my eyes off one well-spoken, well-dressed man – his mouth had imploded, leaving him with an underbite so drastic his jaw was permanently jutting out. I couldn’t believe this was possible in someone under 30, who had grown up in London in the 20th century. It was all I could do not to scream over the table: “Why oh why didn’t your parents get you braces?”
The fierceness and commitment with which we American kids were made to spend our youths in disfiguring, tongue-slicing metal is also bewildering. But at the end of the day, I think we’ve come on top, at least when it comes to saying cheese.