That most awful and excruciating of bad dreams – a gaping mouth crammed with loose and lost teeth, disintegrating, shattering and toppling out of lax gums – is, in fact, one of the most common.
‘It signifies a sense of impotence, a lack of status and influence,’ says psychologist Corinne Sweet. ‘We dream it when we’re at our most pressurised. Anthropologically speaking, teeth are our survival. We need them to eat meat, fish and healthy, crunchy vegetables; we bare them when we’re threatened, to frighten away predators; and when we’re attracting mates – with an enticing smile.’
But setting aside how psychologically catastrophic a lost set of teeth would be, the consequences of a bad smile apparently pose just as serious a threat to our social survival. ‘Eighty-seven per cent of the judgements we make about others are made instantly, solely on appearance,’ says Sweet.
A recent survey by Oral-B found that 68 per cent of respondents assumed that those with good teeth had had a university education, while 82 per cent believed they earned a higher salary. Snap smile judgements can also get personal. ‘If people have bad teeth, we assume negative things about their personalities,’ says psychotherapist and life coach Christine Webber. ‘There’s a reason Simon Cowell always sends his contestants off for a smile makeover. He wants to ensure they’re as popular as possible with the public.’
A smile ‘makes us look approachable and can even help us get our own way and win arguments,’ says Webber. ‘When people don’t look after their teeth, they tend not to smile, and this saps their confidence. Smiling not only boosts our mood – by producing endorphins – it also puts those around us at ease.’
We’re almost always able to distinguish sincere smiles from disingenuous grins, and the latter make us more wary than no smile at all. Perhaps this is why the smile solution does not seem to lie in opting for a picture-perfect pout. We’re as cautious of Tippex-white teeth as we are of gnawed-down gnashers. ‘If teeth are just too perfect – too even, too white, too different from how they appeared beforehand, we’re inherently suspicious,’ says Sweet.‘We read a veneered smile as fake. Picture stars such as Tom Cruise, always smiling from ear to ear, and you begin to read the smile as defensive rather than friendly.’
It may be a mixed message, but surveys have shown that big white smiles are equated with success – and fakeness. We’re beginning to rate our desire for a healthy ‘natural’ smile above our desire for a perfect façade. ‘It’s a real, unprecedented shift,’ says cosmetic dentist Dr James Russell. ‘Patients are asking for much more natural results compared with the more fake-looking “Hollywood” smile that was previously in vogue. They still want amazing-looking teeth, but the goal is for everyone to assume that they’re one’s own.’
But what if you’re caught (like me) between naturally imperfect teeth and an inherent dislike of cosmetic dentistry? A wayward smile, has, unfortunately, been my birthright. My case file was once investigated by the NHS, who mistakenly believed I’d been made up by my orthodontist in a bid to earn extra income. Corrective (rather than cosmetic) dentistry I am no stranger to. Braces? Dozens. Surgery? Several times. Brackets and fascias and periodontics? All of the above. With a stubborn front tooth that refused to appear of its own accord, I suffered several years of dental ignominy, and when the front gap that made a mockery of my impending womanhood was finally filled by that tardy incisor, I was so chuffed to have a tooth that I no longer cared about perfection. I had all my teeth, for the first time in my adult life, and I celebrated the way we always celebrate joyousness: with smiles. Lots and lots of smiles. From ear to ear, wide as a cartoon cat…
Until I became a beauty journalist, and got to meet some of the country’s leading dentists and became privy to the sort of hushed ‘I’m only trying to help you’ advice that sparks an epic crisis in confidence. One chap spent 30 minutes explaining how I would be put under general anaesthetic, have my jaw broken in two places, before it was realigned, wired and set, whereupon I would subsist on nothing but liquidised meals for a couple of weeks. Nothing major. Not zygomatic major, at any rate. My smile muscles were shocked into stasis. He continued, ‘… and then we can get on with the business of veneers,’ flashing his own grin, ‘until you’re left with a perfect smile.’
But my smile wouldn’t be perfect. It would be fake. Fine, I thought, I accept that my smile is seriously lacking in both brightness and symmetry, but my twice-daily sonic-brushed, flossed and rinsed teeth are, at least, all present, correct, intact and healthy.
And therein lies my inherent dread of invasive cosmetic dentistry – that looming, unshakeable sense that something sinister lies beneath. After all, in order to instal such blindingly beautiful porcelain, one must make room for it (by grinding the real teeth down to little stubs first), something I find deeply disturbing. And I am not alone. The number-one concern for those considering cosmetic dentistry is the invasive nature of the treatment, a fear that has led Russell, along with several other pioneering dentists, to introduce ‘gentler dentistry’. ‘We’re now trialling no-preparation veneers and less aggressive, less visible orthodontics, such as the Inman Aligner, which can straighten teeth in as little as six weeks,’ he says. Good news for all those who, like me, might want to fine-tune their teeth, but don’t want a mouth that drowns out every other expression with bright, white noise.