The effect of the ubiquitous presentations of unattainable physical beauty has been well documented, especially in the way that it affects young women. The same issue – high social importance being placed on an aspect of physical attractiveness – is also driving an intense preoccupation with having a perfect smile, which in turn is driving sales of dental implants, orthotics, and teeth whitening.

Having a clean, attractive mouth full of straight white teeth isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s physically attractive, and it’s also an important aspect of maintaining good overall health. Serious issues, such as heart disease and arterial inflammation, have been tied to poor oral hygiene, and certainly brushing twice a day and flossing regularly makes the body less susceptible to common ailments, such as colds.

But we have to leave the health aspect aside for a bit because the fixation on having a nice smile doesn’t stem from a desire to maintain good health. It a direct response to the fact that the media is saturated with increasingly idealized impressions of the human body. All the anti-anorexia and other awareness campaigns aimed at protecting girls from unhealthy beauty fixations help us to screen out much of what those images tell us we should do, but we don’t have a defense against the idealization of a perfect smile.

Part of the problem is that we process the sight of a bright white smile as a sign of good health. We think of being super thin as a sign of bad health. We’ve been educated enough to know that the extreme diets, drugs, and surgical enhancements that are necessary to maintain a physically impossible figure are unhealthy. And in reality, some of the extreme measures that people to go in an effort to maintain a shining set of teeth are just as unhealthy.

But we aren’t programmed to think in terms of the means. We think in terms of the ends. The forms patients fill out on their first visit to a dentist usually include a questionnaire designed to tell the dentist how to serve a patient’s needs. That questionnaire asks what the patient wants out of the relationship with a dentist, and although there are twenty or so possible answers the number one response is “a better smile.” Improving the smile is more important than health. That’s what patients tend to care about the most.

A nice smile is important enough to the population as a whole that when the economic downturn was at its darkest point, during 2009, sales of in-office tooth whitening didn’t take a tumble. Everything else did. Car sales dropped, and people stopped paying mortgages. Big banks needed bailouts, and even sales of food shrank considerably. But while Americans could do without food, they couldn’t do without bright white teeth.

With the recession over now and a slow economic recovery underway people are spending more and more on dental procedures. New products, especially in the areas of orthotics and cosmetic dentistry, are proliferating, and patients are increasingly opting for more expensive procedures because of their cosmetic benefits.

One of the most popular new procedures to be released in the last couple of years makes it possible for a dentist to install dental implants in a patient’s entire mouth in a single visit to the office. Implants are popular for both health and cosmetic reasons, and the arrival of this procedure is driving extremely strong sales.
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