Imagine if Marilyn Monroe or Cindy Crawford had their signature beauty marks lasered off — or if 1960s supermodel Lauren Hutton and her contemporary counterpart Lara Stone had attacked their quirky gap-toothed grins with Invisalign and veneers. They’d all still be beautiful, sure. But would they be icons?
In an age when technology is increasingly making possible just about any revamp of the face, teeth, or body, the temptation to seek perfection may be powerful. But a greater willingness to accept and even embrace flaws — otherwise known as the features that make us unique — has filtered down from the celebrity world to the rest of us. Even as people continue to opt for cosmetic procedures, an increasing number are preserving one-of-a-kind traits.
“That’s more common now than ever before,” said Leonard Tau of the Pennsylvania Center for Dental Excellence in Bustleton. The cosmetic and general dentist has seen a spike in whitening, even as more patients decide against a perfectly straight smile. “The majority still choose to fix everything, but there’s a growing number who want to keep everything natural and don’t want to go for anything that’s artificial.”
“I had a patient who was thrilled with the gap on top, even though she had crowding in her bottom teeth and wanted to fix the crowding,” he says. Among his self-confident, independent-thinking clientele, a la carte cosmetic choices are no longer unheard of. In the age of increasingly informed patients, beauty is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition.
One example is Casey, the one-name star of Wired 96.5’s midday programming. The 28-year-old is proof that having, as the joke went, “a face for radio” is not an option these days: She’s constantly appearing at public events, in Web videos, on marketing materials. “We’re more in the public eye than we ever have been, so it’s more important than ever that I look the best I can and look as natural as I can,” Casey said.
When she went to Tau, she wanted to look good, but like herself. So she passed on the veneers that could have squared off her rounded teeth, and the procedures to cut back her gums (or even Botox the inside of her upper lip!) so that her smile would be more toothy and less “gummy.”
“I don’t care about all of that. I just wanted my smile to be a little brighter,” said Casey, who went with a deep-bleaching of her teeth. “I’m doing something that’s subtle but it’s still me. It’s not altering my gums or putting fake teeth in my mouth.” That would be akin to erasing what makes her her. “It’s like prosthetic everything.”
In fact, what Casey knew intuitively — that natural is better, even if it’s not perfect — is increasingly becoming understood as scientific truth.
For example, one traditional theory has tied beauty to facial symmetry. Dahlia Zaidel, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the Brain Research Institute at University of California-Los Angeles, has put that idea to the test in scientific studies over the last decade — and it has consistently failed. In a 2005 study, she asked subjects to rate the attractiveness of real faces against faces that were symmetrical images created in Photoshop; the naturally asymmetrical mugs won out every time.
Studying native modes of adornment around the world — and modern tattoos and piercings on South Street — underscores this notion, Zaidel said. “People are naturally inclined and have always been inclined to accept natural asymmetries or even impose artificial ones.”
Zaidel explained that there are certain factors that have evolved to indicate health, strength, or fertility — and what remain the true nonnegotiables of beauty: clear skin, reflective eyes, white teeth, shiny hair, chiseled jaws, and high cheekbones. (Those last two, traits that once indicated strength and adulthood in men, have now been associated with females, hence the abundance of square-jawed anchorwomen.) Science shows us that — despite the millions we spend on nose jobs and Restylane — “it’s not the shape of the nose, it’s not the shape of the lips,” Zaidel said.
Paul Berson of the Philly Dental Spa agrees there are constants: “I don’t think I’ve ever had someone tell me their teeth were too white.” But he does have patients who want to preserve an imperfection that’s a common family trait, such as a gummy smile that looks just like their mother’s.
Louis Bucky, a plastic surgeon based in Ardmore and Philadelphia, says preserving what’s unique comes into play even in cosmetic surgery, particularly when talking about rhinoplasty. “People talk about preserving their ethnicity. For example, if they’re of Middle Eastern descent, there are some classic ethnic similarities in terms of the tip and bump,” he says. Computer imaging also enables surgeons to design a nose to fit a person’s face, rather than make identical “doctor’s noses” for all.
At age 74, Fran Seaman did want one thing: whiter teeth, which she achieved with help from Tau. She, too, is a beneficiary of new technology — until Tau got the Kor bleaching method a few years back, she had been told she wasn’t a candidate for whitening. But even in her 70s, a small beauty boost seemed worth pursuing, even as she decided to leave other flaws alone.
Can the Philly resident say she has embraced her gaps and her loss of enamel? Maybe not, but it’s just not that big a deal to her. “I don’t like to spend a lot of money on stuff that’s not necessary,” she said. “I just wanted my teeth to be a little whiter.”
Sharrona Pearl, assistant professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and an expert in physiognomy and visual culture, says she has noticed a change in the last several years, one that can be tracked, in all places, on the runway.
“You have the supermodels of the ’80s and ’90s who were all about character and personality, and then you had a backlash against that and a preference for models being drones, and the decline of the supermodel. And now we’re in a backlash against that.” Models are again being valued for their quirky qualities, she said, pointing to the eyebrow-endowed Lily Collins and Arizona Muse.
In the era of nips, tucks, and airbrushing, anything is possible.
“Maybe part of the way you decide what you want to look like is by drawing on what you already are,” Pearl said. “People are going back to what they prize about their own individuality.”