It’s rare for fashion trends to last as long as 60 years. But this one tradition has never gone out of style among generations of youth in Cape Town and other regions of South Africa – dental modification. It sounds odd, but the South African youngsters actually like to sport toothless smiles, after getting their front teeth removed. Dressed mostly in baggy sweaters and caps drawn low over shiny sunglasses, the gummy smile is unique to these young South Africans who like to strike gangster poses. According to 21-year-old Yazeed Adams, “It is fashion, everyone has it.” The trend is often referred to as the ‘Cape Flats Smile’. The name comes from a populous neighborhood where this bizarre body modification is done by a large number of teens. But Jacqui Friedling of the University of Cape Town’s human biology department, who studied the phenomenon in 2003, says that she found fashion and peer pressure to be the main reasons for removing teeth, followed closely by medical reasons and gangsterisms. “It is the ‘in’ thing to do,” she says. “It went through a wave, it was fashionable in my parents’ time.” True enough, the practice has been around for at least 60 years now. Traditionally, dental modification such as filling of teeth and ornamentation was found only in tribal people. In modern Cape Town, it is seen as a rite of passage for teenagers, most often from the poorer families. Some stories say that the tradition started from the fisherman, who couldn’t communicate with each other on boats. So they created the ‘gap whistle’ as an effective means of communication. The men today feel their ‘gaps’ attract women, and vice versa.
Of course, it isn’t always great to have a big gap where your teeth are supposed to be. Eating is going to be a terrible ordeal and formal occasions do call for a full smile. For times like these, dentures come to the rescue. It’s funny to see that people in Cape Town go to the dentist to get their healthy teeth out and then get dentures from the same dentist. But that’s exactly what happens. According to Rob Barry from the faculty of dentistry at the University of Western Cape, the frequency of teeth removal has increased even though practicing dentists are ethically barred from removing healthy teeth. “Almost every week I get some or other teenager in here wanting teeth out,” he says. He himself has made thousands of partial dentures for people who need to make themselves look acceptable for work and other social occasions. In fact dentures have become fashion statements in themselves, as Friedling points out. Sometimes they are decorated with gold or bits of precious stone in various designs. “Here, it is a case of elevating themselves above the rest of their peers. The minute they can afford different sets of dentures, the idea is ‘I am a bit better than you’,” she says.
Photo: Lino Steenkamp
45-year-old Ronald de Villiers lost all his teeth when he got a set of gold dentures that infected the rest of his mouth, which is not that uncommon. His 11 and 14-year-old kids have already ‘had theirs out’ to look prettier. It isn’t all that difficult to find a dentist to remove healthy teeth, he says. All it takes is a little extra money. Surprisingly, the practice is followed not only by the colored, but a few whites and Chinese living alongside the poor colored areas. A few years ago, studies were conducted and over 2000 people were interviewed. 41% of them had modified their teeth. About 45% were male. 42% claimed to be moved by peer pressure, while 10% removed their teeth for practices of gangsterism. Friedling says, “They said when they have gang fights they take people’s teeth away, it is like taking a bit of their wealth away.” Well, it figures. How would you break a man’s teeth when he has none in the first place. Why, take away his dentures, of course!