Revelations About Being Brown In A World Of White Beauty

Mind the gap.

I have my father's smile. I wasn’t always sure that was a good thing. We both shared a feature, a separation between our two front teeth. It was slight when I was a kid, yet as the years progressed, it widened and is the dominant feature to my smile. On my mother’s side, my mother, her siblings, her mother, her nieces, my cousins (we were a family of exclusively girl children until 1986), and lo, my own sister, were all blessed with fairly straight teeth. No space between. I was aware that I was different. But for the most part, no one ever made me feel bad about it. That’s really what we look to high school for.

Freshman year of high school by design is its own kind of hazing. An upperclassman in pre-IB geometry tried to do me a solid, chronicling a set of humiliations foretold. I was a nerdy, reserved dark girl with an asymmetrical bob, as was the style in those days, and really good at proofs. One day, he offered some unsolicited advice.

Him: “Have you had British lit yet?”

Me: “No.”

Him: “Don’t smile when they get to 'The Wife of Bath.'”

Me: “Why?”

Him: “Trust me.”

I had no idea what he meant by that. But the immediate cosign from his friend, another classmate, only reinforced the warning: “Oh, yeah…Chaucer. That’s not going to be good for you.”

Months later, during my sophomore year of high school, their warnings would come into sharper focus as my British literature class zeroed in on the following passage:

“Gap-toothed was she, it is the truth I say.

Upon a pacing horse easily she sat,

Wearing a large wimple, and over all a hat

As broad as is a buckler or a targe;

An overskirt was tucked around her buttocks large”

This was also the year that Sir Mix-a-Lot’s seminal classic “Baby Got Back” ascended in hip-hop and pop charts, and blared across booming systems on ashy gray Midwest streets, the year when my male classmates perfected their marriage of dick jokes and hip-hop, and embraced their discovery of black female backsides. These were the tender years of youth and the bane of my fucking existence.

However, teenagers being teenagers, and I, the singularly gap-toothed person in class, all eyes shifted on me. As expected, a request emerged, set up for ridicule: “Hey, S — smile?”

I don’t think I smiled much in class for the rest of that unit. And if I did, I harbored great discomfort. I don’t think I stopped participating in class discussions; I was still my father’s daughter, defiant and gap-toothed, very much assertive in self-expression. I was still a nerd, but I cannot deny that I leaned on the strength of my intellect because I feared everyone had finally accepted this truth so wretchedly rendered in Chaucer’s portrait of "The Wife of Bath": to have gap teeth is to be ugly and to boot, sexually promiscuous. Even the textbook insisted that the trait was an imperfection, implying Chaucer’s portrayal as proxy for a widely accepted Westernized beauty standard.

Who the hell set things up like this?

In dentistry speak, the space between two front teeth is called a maxillary midline diastema. It is a genetic trait. It occurs across cultures and in casual observance, appears to have a higher occurrence among black communities. Some research notes black children exhibit more than twice the prevalence of gap teeth as white children. In books and articles I’ve read over the years, a worldview became visible about its value, ranging from "normal" to "appalling" to a "deviation from normal adult dentition."

There are plenty of stories I’ve been told over the years where friends and folks had a modest midline diastema, and their parents immediately ferried them to the dentist’s office as children to get braces to ensure its closure or invested in veneers. While at home, my gap teeth hadn’t been a viewed as a scourge or subject to ridicule, but at school, what was normal or incidental to me became a focus of imperfection by some of my peers.

The diastema in our particular black family bloodline is as indiscriminate as it is random. I had initially thought I inherited this distinction exclusively from my father and his line. But upon further reflection, I recognized the trait also exists in mother’s line. I’m missing some family photos, so I called my grandmother, my mother’s mother, the other day just to fact-check who else on that side may have had the midline diastema. She immediately chirped, "Oh no, you got solely from your father’s side of the family." I had to remind her that her first husband, my mother’s father, and the father of five of her children, also shared the trait. She had forgotten. The prevailing wisdom had been I had solely inherited the diastema from my father’s clan. Here, I wondered, how in world did I alone win in the diastema lottery? How did I become an outlier? Shouldn’t they have it too? I hadn’t realized before that I was never made to feel different because of it within the family, but I was the only one.

I remember in high school seeing old pictures of Malcolm X and noticing there were pictures with him, his bright smile or speaking, where a small separation between his two front teeth were visible and other pictures where it seemed phantom, disappeared. Later, I discovered that he wore caps to cover his slight diastema. Even Malcolm X got caught up in moments conforming to Westernized vanity and beauty. What hope could there be for me?

It wasn't until I moved to New York in my twenties that I adjusted my own perception and understanding of gap teeth. I kept track to see who covered them or displayed them broadly with power. New York’s immigrant community, with its multitudes of the black diaspora, was a revelation. In Wisconsin, I was simply a dark girl with imperfect teeth. In some ways, I’m still a dark girl with imperfect teeth, a wide, distant space between, just like my father, just like his sister. Yet, in New York, Ghanian and Nigerian immigrants (or first- and second-generation Americans) would stop to ask me where I was from. They bristled or looked confused when I said Wisconsin by way of Tennessee.

“You look like my aunt." "You look like my people." "You look like a Ghanian woman” were things I heard from men over the years I’ve lived in New York. I wasn’t sure if that was a come-on, or a compliment. Yet, what I do know about being seven generations American — descendent of enslaved people and slave owners — is that I have an incomplete story of my heritage.

In these encounters with West Africans, I began a quietly informal inquiry to undo my acceptance of Westernized beauty standards, of white beauty standards, and the gift in these interactions had opened me up to recognize that not only was the diastema a sign and trait of beauty in these cultures, it was a clue from whence some of us came.

I relayed my discoveries to my mother some time ago. She listened, and suddenly, it hit her like a thunderbolt, a thing that never occurred to her before, and she spoke with a kind of wispy awe: “You know, I didn’t even think of that. We don’t know what our ancestry is. We don’t know what tribe we might have come from. I didn’t know that. That’s amazing. That’s interesting.

A Nigerian acquaintance once told me how much he loved my gap. I learned from him that my gap teeth are valued, and in some instances coveted, by some Nigerian woman. I had never considered that I would posses anyone’s ideal. I live in America, and there are many reinforcements to remind me that small gap-toothed dark girls are the least desired. My gap teeth defined as a beauty mark? That shifted my axis.

That anecdotal evidence was confirmed by a 2009 study from the University of Ilorin in Nigeria assessing hereditary incidence and cultural attitudes of diastemas among Yoruba-speaking southwestern Nigerians. The study noted a modest rate of occurrence (just under 27%) of midline diastemas. Yet, it also revealed Nigerians view diastemas overwhelmingly favorably. Those without diastemas expressed desires to artificially create one. While dentists view the practice as risky — occasionally these procedures create their own set of complications — women ignore the risks to attain a prized beauty mark that the West deems disfiguring.

I may have rolled my eyes hard when I came across an article a few years back that heralded that gap teeth were on the verge of becoming a hot fashion trend. When runway models in 2010 and 2013 were seeing a spike in calls for models who represented "quirky" features, a patter of articles surfaced claiming a culture shift in embracing what Western culture has always deemed a "mishap." Still, I didn’t see many dark-skinned women included in these sweet exhortations in what folks were branding as the beauty in imperfection. It read like backhanded compliments and erasure. It was still celebrating a white ideal, a feature prevalent in West African peoples. Why isn’t it simply beautiful? As the writer and poet Crystal Williams wrote in a 2011 essay for Tin House, “Sociocultural norms inform our standards — and definitions — sometimes so subconsciously that we act in response to what our culture thinks is beauty without understanding that beauty is at the root of our actions.”

The moment you recognize you’re conforming to someone else’s standard of beauty, when you can switch the gaze, the space between seems less like a flaw but instead a badge, a mark.

I met a woman a few weeks ago at a conference who was thrilled to see that I shared the gap. We’re both Americans, descendants of enslaved people and slave owners. She told me a bit of folklore about a woman with gap teeth as it connected with her faith and her father: “I’ll never get rid of my gap. I got it from my daddy and it is reflective of a woman in my faith. I’m proud of my gap.”

I’ve been asked and have asked myself why I never I got it closed. When I was younger, braces and dental surgery were less of a priority for my parents, who were working to make ends meet. When I was 13, the dentist explained that he’d have to break my jaw, wire it shut, and then apply braces to maybe close the gap. That seemed like a lot of pain to endure for some measure of acceptance by my less enlightened classmates. I had the luxury of developing a thick skin when people unfamiliar with a small, dark girl with gap teeth would enter their social universe. If I wasn’t beautiful, at least I was smart as hell. I learned the craft of being exceptional. And over time, I recognized that I would lose something distinctly myself, a part of my identity and personhood if I covered or closed it. I don’t think I could ever be the me I am without it.

Last week, my mother’s youngest sister informed me that her 8-year-old daughter has a diastema. Neither parent has gap teeth. My cousin still loves Barbies, plays pretend, and goes to school, no one yet marking her difference. “You thought you were alone all this time,” my aunt told me, “but who knows — she may need to come to you. She needs you to shine so she’s beautiful too.”

In hindsight, I wonder if scholars might have Chaucer’s read of "The Wife of Bath" all wrong. As I revisited her tale, this old woman, gap-toothed, full-figured, was full of rigor and humor, and kind of a sex-positive feminist for medieval Europe. She was so unapologetically herself, recounting all her loves, triumphs, and disasters, that I realized that she gave nary a fuck. And I am my father's daughter: gap teethed and easy with smiles, suffers no fools. Here, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, I "love myself when I am laughing. . . and then again when I am looking mean and impressive."

Want to read more essays from Inheritance Week? Sarah Hagi wrote about paying remittance. David Dobbs explained the genetic research industry’s exaggerated picture of genetic power. Susie Cagle wrote about the difficulty of selling her grandmother’s clothes and the worth of vintage. Sharon H. Chang wrote about society’s fixation with mixed-race beauty. Chelsea Fagan compiled lessons on love and money from our parents. AJ Jacobs wrote about planning the world’s largest family reunion. And finally, Rosecrans Baldwin wrote about reciting poetry at public gatherings, something he inherited from his grandfather.

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