Toothy truth of the ‘Cape Flats smile’

2013-08-25 14:00

The “Cape Flats smile” stole the limelight at an international conference on oral health hosted in the Mother City.

The 19th Symposium on Dental Hygiene saw 600 delegates from 30 countries trade tooth-related morsels at the Cape Town International Convention Centre over three days last week.

In a presentation called “Bridging the Gap in the 21st Century”, Elna van der Ham, the former president of the Oral Hygienists’ Association of SA, traced the history of the so-called passion gap, which is often associated with the coloured people of Cape Town.

“This phenomenon of the removal of four front teeth, known as dental mutilation, is unique and I wanted to bring it to the attention of the international audience,” Van der Ham said this week.

She quoted a study that surveyed 2 167 coloured people in the Western Cape – 41% of whom have had their teeth removed.

One respondent said the extraction was for aesthetic reasons: “I think I have a better smile without my front teeth, and therefore it is more attractive.”

Other reasons cited for tooth extractions included improved kissing and oral sex, “my boyfriend insisted” and a fisherman who said it helped him to whistle louder.

The phenomenon is rooted in Cape Malay slave days, stretching back to the mid-17th century when the removal of teeth was a means for slaves to “take back control of their own bodies”, Van der Ham said.

Today it is still considered fashionable by some, and a gaping smile is a common sight in certain areas around Cape Town. But the perception is changing.

At the conference, Van der Ham encouraged education around the disadvantages of dental mutilation.

The dental hygenist, who runs a practice in the central city, plans to launch a new research and education project involving especially school children on the Cape Flats.

Meanwhile, singer Melissa Pretorius, better known as MelFunktion, cautioned against the stereotyping of coloured people based on previous generations’ dental habits.

In a blog post on the issue, she describes herself as “a proud South African coloured woman”.

She said: “This toothless-wonder phenomenon is undeniably part of every coloured person’s heritage. But I will say that the generation who predominantly practised this is the one before us.

“The new generation of Cape coloureds are smart, creative, free-thinking, hard-working, ambitious, curious, eloquent, proud of our unique, beautiful and colourful culture, and not afraid to speak

our mind.

“We have formed identities of our own. An identity that will not and cannot be defined by what previous generations have done with their dental work.”

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