It is not an issue restricted to the USA that hyper-realistic concepts of beauty are held up as the ideal towards which people should strive. The convention long predates the country itself, with evidence of foot-binding found as far back as 10th century China and neck-stretching described by Marco Polo circa 1300.
However, in America, moreso than anywhere else, we are assaulted daily with countless Photoshopped and otherwise-altered images that present near-literally impossible aesthetics.
Scary and somewhat depressing though this is, it’s something I’m very familiar with and desensitised to. Nevertheless, the USA has still managed to shock and upset me with the levels to which they will attempt to reach these ‘ideals’; not just as consenting (if ill-guided) adults, but for their children. Let me give an example.
Whilst I can’t assess how widespread the phrase is, I’ve always heard the phrase ‘American teeth’ (or ‘Hollywood teeth’) to describe that pearly white, straight-toothed smile that pervades cheesy television chat shows or ‘no-win, no-fee’ solicitors’ adverts in the UK…and nearly anything we watch that was imported from the states. What I hadn’t realised, was that in middle-class America (n.b. whereas Brits often strive to be seen as working-class, Americans strive to be seen as middle-class) this is the norm, rather than the exception. Regular visits to an orthodontist don’t indicate a rare and debilitating condition, but rather the latest progress in transforming children into homogeneous picture-perfect magazine-cover clones.
This discussion thread on The Guardian’s website admirably shows points of view from both sides of the Atlantic, and I’ve pulled out a couple of the quotes that scare me below:
From a French expat living in America:
The American standards are WAY higher; most of my employees have flawless WHITE teeth [and] I had my teeth redone to match my social environment ($30,000)
From an American (Kentucky):
But it’s true that in America if you don’t have nice teeth you get frowned upon. And being that my teeth are not straight that seems to be the first thing that people notice about you, they figure if you don’t look picture perfect then your not worth their time. [sic]
I’m still at the stage where I don’t care – as far as I’m inclined to believe, my teeth are perfectly fine – but I’ve met plenty of people here for whom my smile would be a major issue. Here’s hoping I don’t acclimatise to that mindset. Scarier though, is the (remote) possibility that I could have children here, and be forced to either compromise my morals about mechanically cosmetically altering my child to conform to ideals of beauty, or risk them being bullied and unhappy as they grow up here:
An American woman I know whose parents resisted this fashion was bullied at school for her “bad” teeth, although she doesn’t have a filling in her head at the age of 45
Teeth aren’t the only issue here, and whilst I have issues with other commonplace practices, the arguments against those can be less clear-cut. Male circumcision, for example, is nearly standard in the USA, whereas it is rare other than for religious reasons elsewhere, and medical authorities’ advice varies from ‘no good reason’ to actively calling on medical practitioners to intervene where circumcision is requested (female genital mutilation, on the other hand, is illegal in a large number of countries). Despite this, medical research papers routinely present findings showing health benefits of circumcision, and whilst these have yet to convince many government boards, the WHO currently recommends male circumcision countries where there is a very high risk of HIV, pending further evidence.
If, after reading the above, you are inclined to believe that the Americans treat their children just like the rest of us, albeit being a little more concerned about the brightness of their smile, take a moment to note the phenomenon of child beauty pageants, found all over the USA and presented for your viewing pleasure on such shows as Toddlers & Tiaras, Little Beauties and Little Miss Perfect. Children as young as 3 or 4 are smothered with makeup, subjected to cosmetic surgery and dressed in revealing clothes as they develop attitudes to match their appearance. There are now efforts to bring these to other countries, with the Australians in particular being particularly vocal in petitioning against this spread.
Personally, I’d rather find a nice Welsh girl. She might not have straight teeth or silicone breasts, but at least she’ll know how to cwtch, watch rygbi and shout obscenities at the English.