Casey Joe, a 26-year-old beauty influencer based in New Jersey, had always felt insecure about her teeth. She hated the spaces between them and the way one of her front teeth protruded just slightly in front of the other. “There had been times that I would do really major campaigns, and a lot of the comments would be about my teeth, like, insults and things like that. So it did make me uncomfortable and really self-conscious.” she told me.
Last January, Joe decided to get veneers. “A veneer is just basically a cover that goes on the tooth, like an acrylic nail,” explained Dr. Kevin Sands, a Beverly Hills–based dentist who caters to elite clientele. “If you’re just doing healthy teeth, you just have to take a thin layer off [the tooth], a couple of millimeters, like a contact lens.” He said. Patients typically wear temporary veneers once the teeth have been shaven until their permanent veneers come back from the lab, a process that can take a couple of weeks.
Joe vetted dentists in New York and Miami. She also considered Dr. Mario Alfonso Montoya Paz, a Colombia-based dentist who has crafted smiles for some of the world’s biggest stars, including Tekashi 69 and Rick Ross. But his prices were beyond her budget. Ultimately, she chose Dr. Omar Meza, a dentist in the Dominican Republic who charged a flat fee of $2,500 for 10 veneers on the top and bottom rows of her mouth, effectively $125 per tooth, which was much less expensive than US prices, which can range from $1,500 to $5,000 per tooth for porcelain veneers.
This time last year, Joe flew to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to get the procedure done. The dentist filed a few of her teeth down, taking just enough of the protective enamel layer off to make way for composite veneers (porcelain veneers have a more natural appearance and thus are more expensive). In all, it took nearly 12 hours — seven hours for the top row and about four hours for the bottom. Though anesthesia is oftentimes used for this procedure, especially with porcelain veneers, Joe said she did not have any numbing medicine, so there was some slight discomfort. And though it took her some time to adjust to her new smile because her lips were sore from her mouth being open for so long, she was able to go about her life the very next day. “It’s fun to be somewhere and I’m meeting someone new and they’re like, ‘Wow, you have beautiful teeth,’” Joe told me. “Those are compliments I’d never heard before. It does give me some added confidence, a little bit of a boost to my ego.”
Ashley Strong, 28, an influencer based in Alaska, got veneers last summer, documenting the entire ordeal on her YouTube channel. Though she didn’t have any problems with her natural teeth, she was drawn to veneers because she’s “an aesthetic-driven person.” She wasn’t insecure about her smile, but she believed having straighter and whiter teeth would only help her career. “There would be instances where I would be editing [a YouTube video] and I didn’t laugh all the way with my mouth open, even though I really want[ed] to show my emotions,” she said. “When you start to get a little bit more attention and a little bit more expectation put on you, being able to slowly and confidently smile is so important.”
Our cultural fascination with perfect smiles has been growing steadily for years, and social media has only accelerated the interest. Dr. Kourosh Maddahi, a Beverly Hills–based dentist who has performed dental work on celebs such as music producer Timbaland and comedian Kathy Griffin, told me he believes we’re experiencing a “second wave” of interest in cosmetic dentistry. The first wave, according to Maddahi, happened in the early 2000s, with adults in their forties and fifties getting veneers. He credited makeover reality TV shows from that time like The Swan and Extreme Makeover, the latter of which he consulted on, with introducing veneers to a wider audience. Now, Maddahi told me, people as young as 18 are considering the procedure. “And the main reason for that is how they smiled on Instagram, how they looked on Instagram,” he said.
Take a scroll through Instagram, the place where flaws are easily vanquished with a filter, and you may quickly find yourself beguiled by a sea of pixelated perfection. There is one trend, however, that stands out above all others on the platform, and it’s the increasing appearance of perfectly straight, blindingly white teeth. Much like Instagram Face, the Instagram Smile has now become ubiquitous too. It’s not surprising. Our increasing reliance on social media has fostered an environment that “creates pressure on regular users to perform to the same standards as the famous and wealthy,” to quote a 2019 Atlantic article on the popularity of dental veneers.
Sometimes, the obsession with straight white teeth can be dangerous, as exemplified by the stories of young people who have gotten their teeth filed down in an attempt for the perfect smile, and those who have traveled to other countries, like Turkey, India, Thailand, and Mexico, to get the procedure done cheaply, sometimes resulting in a worse smile than before. What’s interesting to consider, though, is how we got here, as well as the broader implications of a cosmetic procedure that can feel like a necessity because of its association with clout, beauty, and wealth. “When you look perfect, it just makes you look like you’re in a higher status,” Joe said. “Having a perfect white smile and shiny teeth is like the equivalent of having the latest designer bags these days.”
There’s a line from Cardi B’s 2017 bodacious hit “Bodak Yellow,” that’s both a boast and a memorable moment of vulnerability when Cardi proudly raps: “Got a bag and fixed my teeth / Hope you hoes know it ain’t cheap.”
“That was a game changer,” Dr. Catrise Austin, the woman who gave Cardi her new pearly whites, told me in a recent interview, referring to her client’s candor. “A lot of times celebrities don’t want you to know. I mean, they don’t want you to notice, but they don’t say, ‘I got my teeth fixed,’” she added. Austin, who has offices in New York and Michigan and has been practicing dentistry since the late ’90s, redid Cardi’s veneers last year because the star wanted a whiter look. Straight white teeth are just the standard now, Austin explained.
Strong, the Alaskan influencer, blames image editing apps for the rise in dental veneers. “If you think about it, what people are trying to emulate in person is like a Facetune version of themselves,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t really know how to edit their pictures, so it becomes this kind of unrealistic vibe, where people are just like struggling, whitening their teeth, or really cinching their waist, and that’s where, like, the unrealistic kind of beauty standard comes into play.”
In the popular “veneers check” challenge on TikTok, young people show off before-and-after footage of their dental work. But though some people like Joe, who participated in the challenge, got real veneers, the tag features an alarming amount of young people who appear to have received crowns, not veneers. Crowns are designed to protect weak teeth and require grinding down the majority of the real tooth — in this case, healthy teeth — to make way for it. Most commonly, crowns are administered after someone has had a root canal, but they are sometimes used in conjunction with veneers, depending on the kind of work a person’s mouth needs. “Generally, the indication for doing a crown is, say, you cracked your tooth, you bit into something wrong, and half of or most of your tooth structure is gone,” Austin said. “So the purpose of a crown is to protect the remaining portion of your teeth from cracking. The general population should not be getting a mouthful of crowns. They should only be reserved for people who need them in those other instances.”
The TikTok trend, which began at the tail end of 2020, “horrified” London-based dentist Dr. Shaadi Manouchehri, who said, “I didn’t understand why young people with seemingly healthy and aesthetic teeth were having their teeth shaved down to pegs, and why they were referring to these restorations as veneers. I was also concerned at the number of comments from people saying they were considering having this treatment done.” In the long run, according to Manouchehri, getting crowns at such a young age could be detrimental to a person’s health, potentially putting them in the unfortunate position of needing dentures by the age of 40.
You’ve likely seen these kinds of teeth on your timeline as well, which Austin describes as “really big, really white, too chunky, and look like horse teeth.”
There are other complications too. Even with good veneers, the teeth will eventually need to be redone, though they can last as long as 10 to 15 years. According to Maddahi, there are three main reasons why people get their veneers replaced: As we age, our gums can recede, which exposes the root of the tooth. There’s also natural wear and tear. If a veneer chips, it will have to be replaced entirely. And just because you’re rocking a bright, new smile doesn’t mean you can completely neglect your oral hygiene. “Where the veneer is, you cannot get a cavity,” Maddahi told me. “But where the veneer meets your own tooth, on the tooth’s surface, you still can get a cavity. That’s why flossing, brushing, going to the dentist often is still very important.”
When I spoke with John Aballe, a 19-year-old call center operator in the Philippines who participated in the “veneers check” challenge on TikTok, he told me he was “not totally satisfied” with his new smile. He said they were like “rabbit veneers” because of their size. He said he’d always wanted to get his teeth done as a way to “improve” himself and get his confidence up. Eventually, he plans to save up money again to eventually get his teeth redone.
People consider going overseas to get their veneers done because dentists internationally promote either no shaving of the teeth or minimal shaving, which can give the veneer a bulkier look. But there can be health risks to getting such procedures done outside of the country. Just because someone gets their veneers done outside of the US doesn’t mean the dentist is unskilled, Austin told me, adding that composite veneers, typically constructed and applied within a day, are made of a cheaper material than porcelain ones.
Austin, the dentist who reconstructed Cardi B’s smile, refers to teeth done outside of the country for a lower price as “IG teeth.” You’ve likely seen these kinds of teeth on your timeline as well, which Austin describes as “really big, really white, too chunky, and look like horse teeth.” Getting poorly done veneers can also lead to problems in the future like an uneven bite or loose teeth.
About a third of the patients Maddahi sees come to fix issues with their existing veneers. He justifies his $3,000-per-tooth price with the amount of work that goes into making veneers look as realistic as possible. He uses master technicians who hold a special certification for having made more than 30,000 crowns and veneers. These technicians, Maddahi said, spend time on a few veneers each day, bringing an expertise that you won’t get from a technician who makes, say, 30 crowns and veneers in a day. “And that’s what people are paying for so that they get the work done right the first time around,” he said. In trying to make more realistic teeth, dentists are also considering how white to go. “We are using much whiter teeth today,” Maddahi told me. “The white colors we have today didn’t even exist 20, 25 years ago.” In fact, there are varying hues of whiteness, he said, which can vary by region (Hollywood white, European white).
“We are using much whiter teeth today. The white colors we have today didn’t even exist 20, 25 years ago.”
There’s been a steady march toward a universal straight white smile for quite some time now. According to an October 2010 New York Times article, which highlighted the then-burgeoning trend, said “Nearly 600,000 people had veneers in 2006, an increase of 15 percent over 2004.” That number has only continued to grow, with last year marking a 12% increase in cosmetic dentistry. Unsurprisingly, veneers were the most requested procedure.
There’s no doubt that having a brighter smile can substantially improve one’s life. But the emphasis placed on attaining such a smile — on television and on Instagram — feels like another example of a generational mindset to find more and more ways to optimize oneself. “Capitalism has no land left to cultivate but the self. Everything is being cannibalized—not just goods and labor, but personality and relationships, and attention,” writes Jia Tolentino in her 2019 essay collection Trick Mirror. Perfect teeth have become another status symbol on the internet.
Our smiles are among the first things people notice about one another, and the decision to change it — or not — should not be because of social media pressure. “Only think about changing your smile if it’s for you,” Austin said. “Don’t let society pressure you into thinking that you must have a beautiful smile.” ●
This story is part of our Body Week series. To read more, click here.