In toothless Cape Town, fashion is better than your bite

2009-10-07 11:10

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 mixed-race 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 mixed-race South Africans known

is the frequent absence of their front teeth, a mystery to many but popularly

believed to facilitate oral sex.

This sexual myth - not borne out by research - has seen the trend

referred to as the “Passion Gap” or the “Cape Flats smile”.

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.”

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.

“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.”


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