In the Name of Teeth
Throughout Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth, teeth themselves are an important symbol of life. Teeth are not merely for eating – they show a person’s age, betray inner emotion, and show genetic predisposition to “perfection” in their straightness or crookedness. Her portrayl of J. P. Hamilton’s false teeth shows how the body’s aging process can eliminate the existence of teeth in one’s life. To combat this, Mr. Hamilton uses false teeth in order to appear “normal”. He teaches the children to brush their teeth more than once a day, using the threat of a toothless mouth to scare them into doing it. As young people, we often take things like teeth for granted, not remembering that one day they might be gone. However, Clara’s unfortunate accident caused her to lose all of her teeth at an early age. Loss of teeth make those who are different (old: Mr. Hamilton, and Jamaican: Clara) seem even further removed from a “normal” phenotype. Mr. Hamilton also discusses the appearance of teeth in a darker-skinned face as opposed to a light-skinned face. In a dark face, teeth stand out more. They show up, exposing thought and emotion clearly on the face, like reading an open book.
Teeth allow for much interpretation. Smiles, angry shouts, barring teeth, and awkward facial expressions often require teeth to get their mood across. They reveal emotional distress or happiness. There is no way to hide them, because they are seen when people speak. They are one of the first things that people notice in someone’s face, and they are different for every person. The modern obsession with teeth only further proves the point that straight, white, beautiful teeth are necessary to be considered phenotypically “beautiful”. Braces, retainers, head gear, whitening treatments, whitening tooth paste, Listerine, flossing, avoidance of gum recession, and veneers all play into the idea that teeth must be perfect.
White teeth. Who cares, really? Why is it so important to have blinding white teeth? Whitening them inherently damages the enamel, so by “fixing” your teeth by whitening them, you’re actually ruining their protective membrane. Permanently damaging your body to make it fit a social stereotype is bad for your physical health, not to mention completely unfair. As Laura points out in her post this week, people cannot choose the traits that they receive.
Zadie Smith’s emphasis on teeth plays into the larger ideas of the novel that depict the importance of outer appearance. Teeth seem like such a small part of the body — and what they look like technically shouldn’t matter, as long as they can perform their function. However, society has decided that beauty is dictated by outward perfection, so those without pearly whites are automatically put into a segregated category. This metaphor alludes to the challenges of dark skin color in the predominantly white world of London. Clara and Samad and his family face countless prejudices merely because of the color of their skin. It isn’t something that they can change as easily as someone can change the position or color of their teeth. It’s a barrier that they must live with and overcome in the face of defined “normalcy”.