We live in a world where people flood their social media news feeds with selfies. We take pictures with friends at graduations, music recitals and other milestone events. Your grandma and grandpa may pull out the old-school camera at Thanksgiving gatherings and snap family photos.

And what is the common denominator in most of these photos? A smile. While sometimes we strive for a serious or silly pose, the vast majority aim a big smile in the direction of the camera phone when it appears. This wasn’t always the case, however.

Take a stroll through any museum that exhibits classic, centuries-old portraits and you’ll quickly see that nary a tooth is shown in portraits prior to the late 1700s. Almost all of Sandro Botticelli’s portrait subjects are straight-faced, lips gently pressed together. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is smiling faintly, but there’s no sign of teeth. Male and female subjects in Peter Paul Ruben’s portraits smile sweetly, but you won’t see their pearly whites.

Portrait of Susanna Lunden by Peter Paul Rubens

Portrait of Susanna Lunden by Peter Paul Rubens

Do you ever wonder why that is the case? Frankly, in Europe a smile wasn’t a thing to be admired before the 18th century. There was a sense of convention in how teeth showed, according to author Colin Jones, who wrote a book titled “The Smile Revolution in 18th Century Paris.”

In portraits of the 1700s, having your mouth open in a manner that showed your teeth often meant you were from a lower order, your reason had been affected, you were in the grip of some extraordinary stronger emotion, or even that you were insane. The state of people’s mouths in those days didn’t do much to challenge this convention. Even royalty suffered from stained, decayed and missing teeth.

Court painter Madame Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun caused a bit of a stir in 1787 when she painted a portrait of herself smiling and showing her teeth as she held her daughter. This went against painting conventions that dated back to antiquity. The court gossip-sheet “Mémoires secrets” stated: “An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée-Lebrun] shows her teeth.” Pretty scandalous, huh?

Self portrait of French artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self portrait of French artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

In addition to Madame Vigée Le Brun, you can thank dentistry for helping spark this revolution in the way the smile was portrayed in art. Dentistry began to emerge as a science, and began to be used as a means of preventing tooth decay, as opposed to simply pulling rotten teeth. The toothbrush also emerged around this time.

Authors including Samuel Richardson also helped spur the emergence of a culture of sensibility and politeness, even chivalry. In his fiction novels “Clarissa” and “Pamela,” he wrote of heroines who smiled with an expansive, open gesture. Where once considered ironic, disdainful or pretentious, the smile began to evolve into a symbol of equality.

The Modern Smile
As you can see, we’ve come a long way in the smile department. Today, many people say that a person’s smile is the first feature they notice.

Whereas smiling and showing your teeth in the 1700s might have led others to believe you were low class or crazy, the hesitance to show your teeth when smiling today paints an entirely different picture. People who don’t show their teeth when they smile often are perceived to be hiding something- namely teeth that aren’t as attractive they as would like. Flashing a broad, toothy grin is a sign of friendliness in the western world; a symbol of warmth and confidence. Those who don’t show their teeth when smiling or who cover their mouths to obscure their teeth when smiling can come across as mousy, shy and unsure of themselves.

Dentistry has advanced so that far fewer people suffer from poor dental health these days, and there are entire industries built around smile cosmetics. From cosmetic surgeons who consider a person’s smile when making other facial improvements, to cosmetic dentists who whiten, brighten and restore teeth and reshape gum lines to craft more pleasing smiles, the business of improving smiles is booming.

Orthodontic treatment obviously plays a significant role in smile improvements. We consider your facial and skeletal structure when assessing your smile. We can make numerous nonsurgical improvements to correct malocclusions that detract from a beautiful smile, such as overbite, underbite, crossbite and tooth crowding.

Because beautiful teeth are such a desirable feature, our society has evolved into demanding that aesthetics be a priority even while you’re in orthodontic treatment to improve your smile. Just consider how appliances have changed through the years. That is because once again, technology has responded to the demand.

Far fewer patients wear the conventional metal brackets and arch wires that once earned people unfortunate nicknames like “Brace Face” and “Metal Mouth.” Instead, they seek brackets that are clear or tooth-colored, or they request lingual braces, which are bonded to the backs of the teeth and aren’t noticeable to others.

Another popular treatment request these days is Invisalign. Why get brackets glued to your teeth when you can align them with clear plastic aligners that are virtually invisible when worn? Even though they’re barely noticeable, they still offer the option to be removed for key moments: such as smiling for your senior portrait (or even a selfie).

The demands don’t end there. Going hand in hand with the demand for more aesthetic options is the demand for achieving ideal orthodontic treatment results in record time. Once again, technology has met the demand. Invisalign treatment often is faster than treatment with conventional braces. Self-ligating brackets contain sliding mechanisms that enable me to place the arch wire in them and eliminate the need for elastic ligatures. This reduces friction and pressure, and provides more effective forces to achieve tooth movement, which results in more comfortable treatment that takes less time than treatment with traditional braces.

What will orthodontic technology bring next? Time – and patient demands – will tell. Until then, I will say this: I’m happy the times have changed and the way we perceive smiles has evolved. My staff and I get so much enjoyment out of seeing our patients’ smiles on debonding day. It’s a great experience.

If you’re ready to see how orthodontic treatment can give you something to smile about, I invite you to contact our office today for a consultation.