Gap Teeth: Smiling In Between Multicultural Beauty Standards [Writing Prompt Included]

Two millimeters was the difference between beautiful and ugly. And wider apart were the countries that determined which camp I would fall under. In order to feel more aesthetically-pleasing in one of the countries, I turned my smile into a blanket, tucking my teeth away with my full lipped grin. And when my cackling revealed my pearly whites, I would quickly hide my laughter under my hand. After all, I was in the United States of America: land of the gap-free, home of orthodontia where gap teeth are in need of a “fix.”

Fix. It was always “fix.” Never “close the gap” or “remove the space.” Perhaps one could argue that “fix” is a more efficient way to communicate the creation of a gapless smile. Fair enough. But my latter alternatives depict a neutral procedure, one in which there is no right or wrong way–only personal preference. But “fix?” The only thing you fix are mistakes or things that are broken. And so, according to American dental standards, my gap teeth are a problem to correct.

In many African countries, gap teeth are seen as a sign of beauty. However, in the United States, gap teeth are seen as something to be fixed. When this African woman lives across these two cultures, she finds the difficulties in feeling beautiful in the US because of this standard. Click through to read her journey toward acceptance in this area of her life.

When I came to North America, I quickly learned about the wiry metal contraptions called braces. Throughout grade school, I saw them attached to my peers’ teeth, not really knowing their purpose. Eventually, I found out that they straighten teeth. But along the way, I also discovered that some of my friends got them so that they could get rid of their gap, thus meeting the gapless beauty ideal.

Since I was a jobless, young grade school girl, I could not afford to buy into this beauty standard so I hoped that my father would do so on my behalf. One day after he picked me up from school, I told him, “Dad, I need braces,” hoping his response would affirm my desires. Instead, he asked, “Why do you need them?”

“I need to fix my gap,” I remarked, pointing at the tiny space between my incisors.

“You don’t need braces, Mary. Your teeth are fine.”

This was not the response I wanted. In my tween brain, his response registered as further proof that he wanted to make my childhood miserable. Then he went on to explain how, in Nigeria, gap teeth are a sign of beauty. “People will actually go and cut their front teeth to get a gap,” he informed me. I was wide-eyed in disbelief, imagining what that process would look like. This newfound perspective made me feel confident about my smile every time I returned to Nigeria. But it did nothing for me as someone living in the United States.

While living in America, I found a lot of happiness when coming across another individual with gap teeth. In my mind, we were members of some club, the “Gap Teeth Gang” if you will. But over time, I saw a number of them get braces or Invisalign mouth trays. Their two front teeth were automatic sliding doors that became permanently closed.

My imagined siblinghood I had with them was over and I was left to fend for myself, figuring out how to properly smile in a society that sees my teeth as something to fix.

And sometimes when I was in front of my mirror, I would carefully put saliva in between my two front teeth so that, from far away, I knew what I would look like with a gapless grin.

  *   *   *

During my freshman year in university, I opened up to a friend, telling her how I was insecure about my gap teeth. We were walking on the sidewalk toward the university trolley stop under the evening the sky. And while her face was a bit hard to see, I heard her voice clearly.

“Yeah…you should probably keep that to yourself.”

She might as well have slapped me in the face because her words stung. And the embarrassment took the form of uncomfortable tingles that spread across my face like wildfire. She had a point, though. I should have kept that information to myself. I should have kept my mouth shut about it in front of her and shared it with more trusted friends. And I did a few times; one friend said they noticed and liked it while another said they did not even realize I had one. Either way, I still saw my gap as a flaw in need of repair. And since my father did not let me have braces when I was a child, I figured that once I graduated from university and had a stable job, I would purchase Invisalign teeth aligners.

But before that day came, I began to grow fond of my gap. Sure, there were times that I caught myself covering my mouth when I giggled. There were also times that I intentionally hid my toothy smile with a closed mouth. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that I started to adore my natural smile.

For some reason, this small change in perspective also sparked some curious investigation about the perception of gap teeth beyond America’s and Nigeria’s popular narratives. Soon enough, I stumbled upon the idea that gap teeth have also been symbols of sexual promiscuity. One notable demonstration of this can be seen in a popular fiction classic called Canterbury tales. The author, Jeffrey Chaucer, introduces the wife in a very sexual manner and mentions her gap teeth, a feature commonly used to represent lust and sensuality.

I also found out that, in French culture, gap teeth are called les dents du bonheur or “lucky teeth.” I found this out after reading an essay by Kristyn Filip called How I Learned to Love my Gap Teeth.  In it, Kristyn mentions that “those with the coveted gap are are said to have good fortune follow them through life.”

Much like when my father told me about the positive perception of gap teeth in Nigeria, knowing about these other perspectives did not do much for me as someone living in America; it was interesting information though. But just because it did not serve as ammo for my self-confidence does not mean that I did not come to fully embrace my teeth on my own terms.

I can say with 100% confidence that I will not ‘fix my gap’ because there is nothing to fix.

I like my gap’s quirkiness and the extra character it brings to my appearance. I view it as a symbol representing the fact that puns crack me up. Normal people groan; I guffaw. It also represents my tendency to be silly when I am dancing. It symbolic of the random voices I make when I am very comfortable around people. Some people may find two millimeters as the difference between beautiful and ugly. But to me, it is one of the features that simply symbolizes various characteristics about myself that make me…well, me. 🙂

In many African countries, gap teeth are seen as a sign of beauty. However, in the United States, gap teeth are seen as something to be fixed. When this African woman lives across these two cultures, she finds the difficulties in feeling beautiful in the US because of this standard. Click through to read her journey toward acceptance in this area of her life.

For those of you who have tagged along with my blog for awhile, you know that this is not the first time I have talked about beauty from a personal perspective. I discussed colorism in my post called Thoughts on Beauty Perception and unpacked my perspective on both the Dark Girls and Light Girls documentaries. I have also discussed my journey with embracing my Afro-textured hair and expressed my love for my stretch marks in this essay I wrote on The Huffington Post. When comparing this essay to my essay on my stretch marks, I found that the one on stretch marks romanticizes my so-called “flaws” while this post is more of a nonchalant acceptance of an “imperfection.” The former critiques society and asserts that stretch marks, a supposed blemish, are actually beautiful. Meanwhile, this essay says, “Hey, I have this thing and I think it represents my personality. People think it’s a flaw but I think it’s pretty cool.” Here, the different beauty standards are mentioned but are left without critique. The differences between my two essays inspired me to come up with writing prompt for you. The next time you want to write about beauty, consider the following prompt:

This prompt was inspired by the essay, "Gap Teeth: Smiling Through Dental Beauty Standards." In many African countries, gap teeth are seen as a sign of beauty. However, in the United States, gap teeth are seen as something to be fixed. When this African woman lives across these two cultures, she finds the difficulties in feeling beautiful in the US because of this standard. Click through to read her journey toward acceptance in this area of her life.

What is something about your appearance that you have that you have come to accept or love? What are your thoughts on beauty in general? Share them in the comments section below and let’s chat!

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  • I also have a gap in my front teeth and for years, I would sob about my teeth in embarrassment. I grew up with girls who had braces. In fact, I consistently ask for braces every year for my birthday. I never got them because my mom always told me that my teeth were fine. Thanks for embracing your own beauty, because it’s encouraging me to embrace mine as well! (:

  • Thank you for opening up, Annie. I don’t take that lightly. Your Mom and my Dad are right; there is nothing wrong with our teeth. 🙂 And I am so glad to hear that this post encouraged you to embrace your natural beauty. <3

  • Ocean Senta

    Thank you for writing about this issue, Mary. I grew up with the gap as well, and while I did end up getting braces, it was something that I never completely came to terms with. We all have our insecurities, and even just acknowledging them can be tough sometimes. Great post.

    Ocean /

  • I’ve come across the term ‘fix’ in reference to cross-cultural standards of beauty myself–when my hair suddenly turned curly in my teens, I could not go to the hairdressers for a haircut here without them saying, “I can fix this for you, do you want me to fix it?” referring to permanently straightening my hair (nothing against permanent straightening, my mom gets it done a couple times a year, doesn’t have to worry about taming curls anymore, and looks great–but it’s not for me).
    I’m very grateful for braces as an invention and that I got to have them. I apparently had totally whacked-out teeth as a kid and got braces at the tender age of 8 in an effort to stop some of my teeth from pushing out other ones. Looking at childhood pictures I am very happy indeed that my parents sprung for braces! Angel has a gap between his front teeth and is sometimes self-conscious about it, but the only thing I ever notice about his smile is that it’s just about the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a fellow human. 🙂

  • Randie Chapman

    Beautiful piece. I know this was written a while ago, but I’m just now finding you! Thank you for this. I’ve gone back and forth with closing my gap and the answer is always “don’t.” Why would I? It hasn’t hindered a thing in my life. I love it and friends and family have grown eerily attached to it as well, haha. Thanks again!

  • Thank you for sharing that you also had one. I hope this peace was helpful to you in your journey to self-love, Ocean! (Btw, super cool name).

  • I definitely relate to your hair experience, Rachel! I have used straightening treatments (called perms) to make my hair permanently straight as a child. In Black cultures all over the world, the super kinky, coily texture of afro hair has been seen as ugly or unprofessional. Fortunately, there is this new wave of black women wearing their hair natural as a statement of self-love. Thankfully for me, that option has made my hair super healthy.

    Braces can be useful (as you have found them to be in your life). The bit you said about Angel made me smile. I’m sure that you are the reason behind many of his smiles. 🙂

  • I love the way you think, Randie! That’s just it. It doesn’t hinder anything or make my life less difficult from a practical point of view. Happy to come across another member of the #gaptoothgang.

  • I appreciate you opening up a bit, Ocean. (Btw, your name is so beautiful). I hope my piece was encouraging, even in the slightest. Thanks for reading!

  • Thank you 🙂 and I am too! This is the first post I’ve read about having a gap, ever. You’re just awesome for this.

  • Martha Knox

    I’ve had a gap in my teeth all my life. I’ve never been uncomfortable because because my father and later my second husband (love of my life) told me I was beautiful. I’ve also had a healthy ego all my life. Now I’m a character. A funny wrinkly old smart lady (no plan to botox or facelift) with a gap tooth smile, bright green eyes and I laugh often and loud. You are beautiful don’t ever let them talk you into changing your smile.