Equating health with whiteness

When Crest came out with their 3D whitestrips in 2010, I thought this was a new beauty fad. However, it turns out the beauty industry in the 1900s has already tried to push for whiter teeth. In 1947, this advertisement for Pepsodent, a whitening toothpaste, came out. It claimed: “Its cleaner, brighter taste means cleaner, brighter teeth! New Pepsodent,BH2363 the only tooth paste containing Irium, removes the film that makes your teeth look dull – uncovers the natural brilliance of your smile!”. The word “Irium” stood out to me. Those who learned about the periodic table of elements would recognize the “–ium” sound is similar to many chemical elements: Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium, etc. However, in 1994 the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission stated that “Irium didn’t exist” (Hundt). Irium was, in fact, a made-up word that just sounded scientific. Advertisers manipulated science and scientific-like terms to make their consumers think that the product they used was well researched and safe to use. Upon further research, Irium was used in reference to sodium dodecyl sulfate, which researchers today have found to be a skin irritant and harmful to the body (Budavari et al.). Through the use of medical jargon, advertisers erased one group of people while endorsing another. Those that privileged western medicine and science was comforted by the fact that it has been “well-studied”. At the same time, it erased the agency of working class people who have typically have less access to science and medical education.

The medicalization of white teeth implied that anything not “clean and bright” was a symptom that needed to be cured. Symptomatizing teeth deemed alterations to your face, whether that be surgery or make-up, less controversial. As Peiss mentioned, there is “a new focus on scientific skin care as a necessary grooming practice deflected criticism that cosmetics objectified and demeaned women” (262). Now deemed by the medical community as something “abnormal” or “unhealthy”, it was no longer a matter of confidence and self-esteem the woman had. Rather, the cause of these symptoms was an issue of hygiene and sophistication. Hygiene was also linked to health and sanitation, so ultimately, the issue begged the question: who was civilized?

The lady pictured sells a white upper class lifestyle or, what Peiss referred to as, the “white aesthetic ideal” (208). White teeth equated to whiteness and everything the woman represented. Donned with gloves, a hat, silk scarf, earrings, flowers, and holding a “Coast to Coast” brochure, this depiction of a white woman idealized the white upper class lifestyle: healthy, happy and beautiful. If you use this toothpaste, you would be able to live her life. Except all people of color. Although people of color could try to reach the white upper class ideal by using teeth whitener, they would face many other challenges in trying to fulfill this ideal. Perhaps the greatest but subtle contrast in this advertisement was the bell boy just below the woman’s head. The positioning created a stark contrast between the woman’s white teeth and the man’s black skin, further separating the primitive black from the sophisticated white.

Medicalizing beauty took away the “blind submission to oppressive regimes of beauty” of women but it did not give any agency to the consumer (Bordo, 30). Instead white teeth became linked to hygiene and exclusivity. It was meant for those who are civilized enough to “know” what it means to be clean. Using medical terms for beauty ostracized consumers who didn’t privilege Western medicine and falsely comforted those who thought it was a well-tested and studied product. Ultimately, the medicalization of white teeth also reinforced the notion of class – people that were able to acknowledge the medical jargon were able to afford this product and be perceived as more hygienic and sophisticated. Finally, with the depiction of the refined white woman, this advertisement idealized the healthy, white upper class lifestyle as the beauty norm, which was, and still is, far from achievable for millions.


Hundt, Reed E. “Address Before the NAB Radio Show.” Federal Communications Commission. October 13, 1994. Accessed April 24, 2017. https://transition.fcc.gov/Speeches/Hundt/spreh432.txt.

Budavari, Susan; O’Neil, Maryadele J.; Smith, Ann; Heckelman, Patricia E.; Kinneary, Joanne F. (1996). “sodium lauryl sulfate”. The Merck Index (12th ed.). Whitehouse Station, New Jersey: Merk & Co., Inc. p. 1478.

Peiss, Kathy Lee. Hope in a jar: the making of America’s beauty culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable weight feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2013.


2 thoughts on “Equating health with whiteness

Add yours

  1. I really enjoyed this article and the deconstruction of this tooth whitening ad. However, I was a little confused by the use of this argument: “Through the use of medical jargon, advertisers erased one group of people while endorsing another.” It appears that the advertisers were willfully misleading both working class people and upper/middle class people, since it took almost fifty years for the concept of “irium” to be officially debunked.
    In addition to your point that people of color were excluded from this equation of health with whiteness, the lower class was also similarly excluded. Here, the black bellhop is pictured as much darker and much smaller than the white woman, while working a service job (presumably for the white woman, dressed as a tourist). Therefore, while this ad is equating people of color with the lower working class, it excludes the possibility that white people are also working similar types of service jobs.
    I would be interested in looking at other tooth whitening ads in comparison. You mentioned the Crest 3D White Strips — are their ads also medicalized and sell the same white aesthetic?


  2. “Through the use of medical jargon, advertisers erased one group of people while endorsing another.”

    Avery, I was intrigued by this statement but couldn’t quite connect it to the beginning of your blog. This led me to research specific ways advertisements have used science to exclude marginalized people from the picture of beauty and normalcy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything that directly answered the question, but I was able to find some “scientific” papers identifying the racial differences in teeth.

    William Henry Flower published a paper in 1885 discerning sizes of teeth among races. He used a lot of medical jargon such as “dental length” and “anterior surface of the premolar” to validate his measurement methods and allow himself to make claims about the biological differences between races. Milo Hellman used a similar tactic in his 1928 paper, taking these differences a further step by advocating for the evolutionary progressiveness of white people based on their molars. For example, Hellman wrote, “It will be noted that of the three races the Whites are more progressive, because their first molars retain the primitive Dryopithecus pattern in the lowest percentage of cases.” (168) Hellman provided, as you mentioned, “well-studied” evidence for the superiority of whiteness through teeth.

    I’m sure these papers played a role in othering people of color, particularly black people, and probably influenced the approach that dental advertisers took and the audience they targeted. The advertisers are, like Peiss discussed, pushing for the return of white people to their best natural self. There’s no space for people of color to attain this natural-ness, since science has indicated that their teeth are, as Hellman claims, “backward.”


    Flower, William H. “On the Size of the Teeth as a Character of Race.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 14 (1885): 183-187.

    Hellman, Milo. “Racial Characters in Human Dentition Part I. A Racial Distribution of the Dryopithecus Pattern and Its Modifications in the Lower Molar Teeth of Man.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 67(1928): 157- 174.


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