Smile, You're British

Kate Middleton
Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, smiles on November 28, 2012. Paul Rogers/Reuters

"Smile! Not so fast you Brits." Britons have become the laughing stock the world over for the bad state of their teeth.

In Mexico, bad or crooked teeth are known as dientes Ingles. And not without reason. In surveys of OECD countries, the only ones with more cavities than the UK are Turkey and . . . Mexico. (Ha!)

Although it is the world's sixth largest economy, Britain hovers around the middle of Europe's dental-health tables. How is it, then, that perhaps the world's most famous smile – belonging to Prince William's wife, the Duchess of Cambridge – contains not a single crown or veneer. Or that some of Britain's finest thespian exports (Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, Colin Firth) remain un-'done'?

The answer is a trend towards the New Natural. Not in the sense of "as nature intended," but quasi-natural. The best analogy might be a house. An interior decorator may be consulted to help with colors and textiles, but the British don't want their homes to look as if a decorator had been called in.

It's the same with teeth. Welcome to the world of orthodontics-light where your dentist is merely nature's little helper.

According to the London Times, in the new age of austerity Britons are not only experiencing an increasing gap in wealth but in its dental manifestations. Once it was a status symbol to have wonky smiles corrected by filing down the offending teeth and either capping them or bonding to them to porcelain veneers. Now, it appears, people score points by making minute adjustments to their original teeth. A wall of unnatural white, which must be renewed and maintained at some expense and risk, betrays a lack of sophistication.

Consider this. Replacing a mouthful of teeth in London costs upward of £30,000 ($50,000). As gums recede with age, the process needs repeating after 10 to 20 years. But with a few trips to the Wimpole Street, London rooms of the Duchess of Cambridge's French lingual orthodontist, Dr Didier Fillion a classier result can be achieved than any amount of fakery -- for less than half the price.

Why wouldn't anyone align their teeth – even manipulate them to combat the effects of ageing – if they could do it with Fillion's "invisible braces"? Orthodentist to John Galliano and the King of Morocco, Fillion, aged 71, works on the tongue (rather than cheek) side of the teeth and his speciality is bonding braces to the back of teeth so they can be forced into alignment. Using the same technique, he can also ameliorate the "black corridors" that wide-smiled people sometimes display on either side – and he can counteract the tendency of teeth to "tip inwards" with age.

"Micro-rotation" has been around for 40 years. Developed by Craven Kurz, a Beverly Hills dentist, it was conceived as a more aesthetic alternative to traditional braces -- "train tracks" on the front of teeth. The technique only failed to catch on because it took up mouth-space for several months.

In the culture of the quick fix, people preferred the artificial route, even when their crowns were bleached beyond reason. (Teeth yellow in middle age – so, while a 30-year-old can carry off a teenager's smile, it begins to look inappropriate on a 50-year-old.)

However, linguistic orthodontics lingered and, in time, the technology improved and Dr Fillion, an early adopter in Europe, rediscovered his vocation. Now – using computer modelling, 3-D printing and the like – he can have a patient's braces in and out in a few weeks, merely shaving the side of a tooth here and there, if necessary.

The new alignments are held in place by a fixed retainer, whose continued use is reviewed after three years. And the result, says Fillion, is teeth "adapted to a personality." For example, he has noticed a growing tendency in European women (most of his clients are women) to keep gaps between upper incisors that once they would have asked to be closed.

This trend towards the natural has not been entirely voluntary on the patient's part. Under European law, for example, teeth can't be professionally whitened with the same strength of bleaching agent that use in the U.S.

However, the search for the natural look has its parallels in the world of cosmetic surgery and enhancement. Just as Fillion tries to avoid any invasion of the gums, so cosmetic doctors such as Daniel Sister (another Frenchman in London) are trying to develop ways of working with the available material.

Using serum and vitamins, Dr Sister tries to reactivate wasted facial muscle so that the skin tightens itself. Among his high-end clients, he says, "fewer and fewer are asking for the over-filled look that comes from too much surgery or overdoing injectables. That hard, stretched-to-the-limit look is going out of fashion. Tastes are changing."

This shift may also simply be a matter of taste. Or is there a compelling argument for the natural over the artificial, the quirky blemish over flawless facial symmetry?

John Hyman, Professor of Aesthetics at Oxford University, suggests we look to Pythagoras. In the sixth century BC, the Greek philosopher proposed there was innate beauty in certain proportions, giving the example of a musical chord. But, says the professor, "just because a sonata is in A Minor, you can't say it is therefore beautiful, even if it's by Mozart."

True, there seems to be some evolutionary preference for symmetry and regularity in the human face, but that doesn't necessarily negate subjective and learned responses – "and they are inevitable in any interaction between two adults." "The thing is, we can hold more than one value," he says. "We can appreciate both familiarity and spontaneity, formality and informality."

Beauty, then, lies in the eye of the beholder. But tell that to a high-end mouth, yearning to look like Kate Middleton's.

Uneasy lies the tooth that wears the crown. The Brits are biting back.