But perhaps even more important than what your smile means to others is what your smile means to you–how you construct your own identity through your smile. And this is probably the most important reason why you should consider a smile makeover if you are unhappy with the appearance of your smile.
Mirrors and Identity
For most of human history, some historians have argued, people didn’t really have what we consider to be an individual identity. Instead, people saw themselves through a series of relationships: relationships with family, relationships with their community, and relationships with God.
They lived in communal spaces and they didn’t represent themselves as individuals. When they wrote letters, these letters were mostly about formal matters or orders for goods. When they talked about themselves at all in writing, they represented themselves as part of a community, and even their relationship with God was not considered a personal one, but a communal one. Few secular paintings were made.
This changed dramatically from the 14th to the 15th century. People started writing autobiographies. They started writing personal letters. They talked about a personal relationship with God. And they began living in their own, separate spaces. And they began to commission self-portraits representing themselves.
So, what changed? Some argue that the mirror was largely responsible for this change. Glass-covered mirrors that were now affordable for many people began to spread. With these mirrors, people could see themselves as they actually appeared to others (unlike primitive mirrors that distorted the image). As they could see themselves, they began to think of themselves. Not as part of a group, and not merely as a relationship to others: they were individuals.
Advertising, Photos, and Smiles
But if you look at the self-portraits commissioned during the 15th century, one thing becomes very clear: these people didn’t smile a lot. It wasn’t that people couldn’t paint smiles or hold them long enough–we have enough examples of people smiling in pictures to show that it could be done. The reason why people didn’t smile is that smiling too much (such as constantly in a picture) was considered something that only undesirable people did. The smile was reserved for madmen, drunkards, rakes, and tax collectors.
This notion that one shouldn’t smile in pictures persisted into the early days of photography. Not because people had to stand still for a long time–it only took a couple minutes to expose these pictures–but because getting a picture taken was still a formal event.
It was the instant camera that changed our mind about smiling in pictures. At the turn of the 20th century, we began to see advertisements showing people smiling, including ads for Kodak cameras. These cameras weren’t intended to represent a formal version of you: they were supposed to capture the true you, being yourself, and, ideally, enjoying life. Achieving happiness and expressing that happiness in pictures was more than just a status symbol: it was about achieving the American dream and realizing the full potential of one’s self.
Selfies and Smiles
Now that cameras have become even more immediate and the use of selfies widespread, have they further changed our attitude toward smiling? Somewhat.
There is a tension between authenticity and posturing in selfies. People who believe in authenticity in selfies, who are trying to use the selfie as an art of self-expression tend to smile in their selfies.
But there are those who believe that the selfie is instead a way to present a front, an image of oneself that is not judged by its authenticity, but by its coolness. The unsmiling king and queen of this movement, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have both chosen not to smile because they are posturing. Among the poseurs a number of different expressions have come into and passed out of vogue, most famously the “duck lips.”
Your Smile and Your Self
What is the point of these reflections? Simply this: your smile is–to a great degree–your self. When you look at your smile in the mirror, and you’re unhappy with it, you are happy with yourself.
Thus, cosmetic dentistry is about more that making oneself pretty. It’s about improving one’s access to self-realization and a better individual identity. Even nonsmilers in selfies admit that the smile is an expression of a true self, it’s just that they opt instead for a pretend self.