Monday, January 10, 2011

Telling on myself: the Cape Flats smile

Ok, I’m going to tell on myself here and remind you of how critical and judgmental I am—in case you had forgotten!

While in Cape Town, I met a lovely young man and he was very, very handsome. I couldn’t help but notice though, that he was missing all of his top-front teeth. I remember worrying about what happened to him at such a young age: Was he in a car accident? Was he in a fight? Could he have suffered with such horrible tooth decay? He looked marvelously healthy in every other way. We spent a bit of time together and I had an occasion or two to observe him eat. As I watched him tackle an apple, I was saddened at the thought of him trying to eat with such difficulties, and again, at such a young age.

After a few days of my ranger duty, I noticed a BMW in the office parking lot. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met many park workers making enough money for such a high-end car, and curious, I asked to whom it belonged. I was told that the car belonged to the parents of the very handsome young man who had no teeth. And in my critical and judgmental thinking, I thought, “His parents can afford such a nice car, and yet they cannot afford to fix their son’s teeth?” (Notice too, my thought of “fixing” the teeth… I’m becoming aware of my USAmerican notions of “fixing things” instead of letting things be. Is this a Karen tendency? Or a USAmerican tendency?)


A few days later, my housemate commented that she had noticed several Capetonians of the colored race having missing front-top teeth and was curious about it. Was it a cultural thing? (And I can feel the collective cringe from the USAmericans at my designation of a people by their race. Sorry folks! That’s the way it’s done here! It takes awhile, but unfortunately, you somewhat get used to it, or at least I have, which is sad…) She later confirmed that when she inquired with Captonian friends about it—this missing of top-frontal teeth—it is indeed, a cultural thing and is considered a very, very attractive attribute from those who practice it.

Yikes! I just shudder at the thought of a dentist extracting perfectly healthy teeth!

So, I learned a completely new cultural thing about a new group of people (to me) living in Cape Town. I’m posting an article from News24 and a photo I’ve borrowed from the internet. (The photo of the toothless young men was not a part of the article.)

Can’t quite wrap my mind around this one, but hey, I don’t have to!  And, I must admit, I don't understand the attraction in a lot of USAmericans "fashions" either!


The Cape Flats smile

2009-10-09 14:26

Fran Blandy

Cape Town - The laughing young man has a perfect set of teeth, his golden incisors glinting in the sunlight.

Suddenly he pops out a pair of dentures, revealing a gap-toothed smile, the four upper front teeth missing, a common sight among coloured Capetonians that has spawned outrageous myths and stereotypes.

A group of youngsters clad in baggy sweaters, caps drawn low over shiny sunglasses, mill around curiously before they start to pop out their own dentures, showing off gummy smiles and striking gangster poses.

"It is fashion, everyone has it," said 21-year-old Yazeed Adams, who insists he had to take out his healthy incisors because they were "huge".

One of the most enduring images of coloured South Africans is the frequent absence of their front teeth, a mystery to many but popularly believed to facilitate oral sex.

Fashion, peer pressure

This sexual myth - not borne out by research - has seen the trend referred to as the "Passion Gap" or the "Cape Flats smile", after a populous neighbourhood.

Jacqui Friedling of the University of Cape Town's human biology department studied the phenomenon in 2003 and found fashion and peer pressure the main reasons for removing teeth, followed by gangsterism and medical reasons.

"It is the 'in' thing to do. It went through a wave, it was fashionable in my parents' time," she said of the practice which has been around for at least 60 years.

Dental modification in Africa is historically found only in tribal people, including filing of teeth and ornamentation, but in modern Cape Town the practice abounds, often as a rite of passage for teenagers - almost exclusively from poorer families.

Rob Barry from the dentistry faculty at the University of the Western Cape said the practice has surged, even though dentists are ethically barred from removing healthy teeth.

"Almost every week I get some or other teenager in here wanting teeth out," he said.


He said he has made thousands of partial dentures for people who need to look acceptable at work or for special occasions.

Friedling said the dentures themselves have become a fashion statement, some decorated with gold or bits of precious stone or various designs.

She noted that the Cape Town trend preceded the hip-hop culture fad of wearing ornate gold or diamond "grills" on teeth that swept the United States in the last decade, in which people opted for removable gold or ornamented caps rather than extracting the actual teeth.

"Here, it was a case of them elevating themselves above the rest of their peers, (it was) not to do with hip hop culture. The minute they can afford different sets of dentures then (the idea is) 'I am a bit better than you'," Friedling said.

"That's what makes it here in South Africa so unique," she said.

Kevin Brown, 33, sits in his "office", a crate on the corner of Long Street, the city's nightlife hub, where he hands out cards for an upstairs brothel, popping out his teeth at passers by - often tourists - and laughing at their reactions.

"I am the pimp," he smiles, displaying four gold incisors. "It is a fashionable thing."

Form of identity

Ronald de Villiers, 45, lost all his teeth after he initially put in gold dentures which infected the rest of his mouth, a common occurrence.

He said his 11-year-old and 14-year-old had already had theirs out "to look a bit prettier" and says it is easy to find a dentist to pay a bit extra to remove the healthy teeth.

"I think it was initially a form of identity. If you look at the coloured people they are a hodge podge of everyone that came in, they couldn't claim any of those ancestries of their own," said Friedling.

To her surprise, she also discovered the practice among a few whites, blacks and even one or two Chinese living alongside poor coloured areas.

In interviews with 2 167 people, 41% had modified their teeth, of which 44.8% were male, in the only study of its kind.


Peer pressure was cited by 42% while 10% removed their teeth due to gangsterism practices - a huge problem on the Cape Flats - a mainly coloured area on the outskirts of Cape Town.

"They said when they have gang fights they take the people's teeth away, it is taking a bit of their wealth away," said Friedling, adding that different gangs would also have different implants.

Not everyone is pleased with their decision.

Ebrahim Jardin, 33, is not wearing his silver, gold or plain pair of dentures today. A cigarette is clenched between his gums.

"I should have kept my front teeth. Most of the younger people do it, but I don't think it's cool anymore. It is people expressing their stupidity."


photo from internet:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Karen, At the end of the day, it was a (local) qualified and registered dentist who extracted their teeth. Yikes to the standards of dental training in South Africa that breeds such practitioners!