Teeth as class code

Monica Stroe / Bogdan Iancu

In the last decade, a series of studies pointed to a direct relation between smile and professional success, where smile acts as a social currency (Shore and Heerey 2011). Starting from the recent debates about the economic value of the smile we focus on something more concrete and mundane: the teeth’s expressive potential for social stratification. According to Malcolm Gladwell (2014), the writer and social scientist, “teeth are becoming the new benchmark of inequality” and will define status and hamper upward mobility. He argues that “the teeth thing and the obesity problem are the same: they are symptoms of the same set of inferences that are being drawn”.

A growing presence of adults displaying braces and of aesthetic dentistry services indicate a growing investment in teeth as positional object in Bucharest and other large Romanian cities. The short piece raises some points of discussion about the modes in which teeth – a body part with expressive value – are invested with commodity status as pointed by Fehervary (2015) in the Hungarian case. The following is based on the first interviews of the exploratory research on middle classness in Bucharest.

“The first thing you do when you realize that you are part of the upper middle class: you fix all your teeth! I was joking with my wife about what it’s like to have a treasure of porcelain and gold in your mouth!”* (Marius – 45, H&S Senior Manager). Marius highlights the importance of dentition in the process of encoding the social mobility, especially as – according to his statement – he lived a childhood characterised by dentition problems due to poor eating. The gradual dissolution of dentistry cabinets from the public healthcare system post 1989 meant that a significant part of the population was in fact denied free access to dentistry services covered by regular public health insurance. Consequently properly maintained and aesthetically pleasing teeth have come to represent a marker of access to costlier medical services.

A Bucharest dentist self-identifying as middle class himself describes the class-bound dental practices of his clients, by using a striking metaphor: “Dentists can read perfectly how well-off a person is just by looking at their teeth. A person’s mouth is like a [plane’s] black box” (Andrei, 31, dentist). He goes on to suggest that – even if no social class is spared from tooth decay, those in the middle class are more incentivised to fix the problems.

Fehervary (2015) argues that: “Innovations in dental technology provided affordances for transformational practices that have become normative for middle class embodiment” but she stresses that “commodified teeth has not been accompanied by the newfound appreciation for the selling smile”. Which seems to be valid (at least for now) for the Romanian case.

*dental alloys having porcelain and higher noble metal may cost about 200 €.

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