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, 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.