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The Expensive, Exhausting Pursuit of a ‘‘Perfect Smile’’

Dental care goes beyond vanity—it’s an essential part of our health and well-being. Allure investigates the innovations, trends, and roadblocks we encounter in caring for our teeth.

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Whether we are smiling, laughing, crying, yelling, or simply saying “hello,” our teeth are one of the first things people see. For millions of people, this can be a source of shame—something to be covered up in person, edited away in photos, and, when financially feasible, “fixed” at the doctor’s office. As someone who sees a camera and instinctively makes a closed-mouth smile, I’m all too familiar with these anxieties.

In recent years, the beauty world has made huge strides in inclusivity. We’ve seen the standardization of 40-shade foundation ranges (thank you, Fenty Beauty), the rise in size-, gender-, and age-diverse casting, and the much-needed increased accessibility of products for folks with disabilities. Despite these major improvements, however, many beauty standards remain fixtures in our daily lives, with the “perfect smile” ideal being one of the most prominent—and one of the most elusive. But dental care, both essential and cosmetic, is woefully inaccessible for millions of people in America, oftentimes due to the prohibitive cost; this is yet another reason “good teeth” have become symbolic of status, access, and wealth.

While you may see the occasional gap in the teeth of a model—more often than not, a model who checks the boxes on many other conventional beauty standards—it is still rare to see someone with, say, crooked teeth or crowding, let alone yellowing or even a less-bright-than-a-Chiclet white. (For celebrities, getting veneers after hitting it big is still practically a right of passage.) In fact, “bad teeth” are often a hallmark of villains—think Jaws of the James Bond universe—and characters intended to be punchlines.

So, how did we get here? And what is the cost—emotional, financial, and time-wise—of getting the “perfect smile”? Below is a snapshot of modern dentistry, including firsthand accounts of adult braces wearers and a day in the life of one of Hollywood’s biggest dentists.

Image by VASYL MYKHAILENKO / Getty Images

I Took on Credit Card Debt to Get Braces as an Adult

Sarah Kinonen

SE: “Over her nearly seven years at Allure, associate beauty director Sarah Kinonen, the editor behind our Show Your Teeth series, has reported multiple stories regarding income inequality and how it relates to beauty. (I’ve personally had many eye-opening conversations with her on topics like these—one of the many advantages of working on a team full of beauty editors who bring their unique perspectives to the table!) Whether or not you know what it’s like to grow up envying your classmates for their shiny braces, I highly recommend reading her essay.”

Some of Us Have Naturally Yellow Teeth and There’s Nothing We Can Do About It

Hannah Baxter

SE: “It’s easy to assume that the only reasons someone’s teeth might be yellow are their choices: smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and alcohol, forgetting to brush, eating and drinking sugary things. But I learned something incredibly helpful from this piece by Hannah Baxter: The shade of your teeth is not exclusively dictated by lifestyle. In fact, some people have naturally white teeth while others of us (hello, comrades) do not.”

Tyra Banks Apologizes After Being Blasted for Insensitive Remarks in ‘America’s Next Top Model’ Clip

Bruce Haring
Deadline Hollywood

SE: “Like many Millennials, I’ve thought periodically about America’s Next Top Model and its role in the ‘00s reality TV zeitgeist. When this clip resurfaced, I immediately remembered the episode; I, too, have gaps in my teeth, so it made a major impression on me as a child. But, unlike many celebrities called out for cringeworthy television moments years down the line, Tyra acknowledged the clip and apologized. Take note, fellow early-Aughts stars.”

How Clear Teeth Aligners Can Affect People With Eating Disorders

Rosemary Donahue

SE: “This essay by former wellness editor Rosemary Donahue, who experienced triggering side effects after starting Invisalign treatments, is a solid reminder of why it’s necessary for medical professionals to receive training and education on eating disorders, even if they do not work in eating-disorder recovery.”

The Crest of the Whitestrip

Brennan Kilbane

SE: “‘Let me be enamel-clear: There is no health imperative to having white teeth,’ writes Brennan Kilbane. The fact of the matter is that we do not need a bleach-bright smile—we just want one. Really, really badly. How did we get this obsessed with tooth-whitening trays and strips?”

Who Invented the Toothbrush?

Library of Congress

SE: “My mother is a librarian, so I love libraries—particularly the Library of Congress, which has myriad historical documents and information on every topic under the sun, as well as photography and art, like this 1938 poster promoting dental hygiene that could easily be passed off as a modern ad for a Silicon Valley tooth-care startup.”

Sam Escobar

Sam Escobar is Allure’s Site Director. Their writing has appeared in Esquire, MEL Magazine, The Observer, Business Insider, and Cosmopolitan, and they were named one of Brooklyn Magazine's "30 under 30." In the 10 years they’ve spent in the media world, they’ve held editorial roles at Good Housekeeping, Bustle, and The Gloss. In 2016, they co-edited Kill Your Darlings, Tweet Yr Drafts, a chapbook of casual love poetry. In their spare time, Sam can be found practicing calligraphy, petting cats, and staring into a telescope. You can follow them on Twitter, which they refuse to call “X,” as well as Instagram.

Image by Christine Hahn