“Dealmaker? GREAT SMILE!
Dealbreaker? BAD TEETH!”
When I was 11, and had just moved with my parents to East Lib, Pittsburgh, this brazen stubby white boy started calling me “Beaver” because of my slightly bucked teeth and perpetual overbite, and that nickname stuck. (People who know me from then still know me as “Beav.”) By the time I reached high school and the rest of my face began to match my front teeth, a gap formed between them. Between the gap and the overbite, my teeth did the thing that happens when misaligned entities repeatedly crash into each other. Some grinded, some eroded, some sharpened, some separated from each other — slowly, but decisively, like my mouth was Pangea. (And then, while playing pickup basketball in 2005, an accidental elbow to the grill shifted one of them, closing the front gap by a millimeter or so but also leaving that tooth slightly crooked.)
I cannot recall a time when my teeth were not in need of drastic correction. Specifically, I cannot recall a time when I felt like my teeth were not in need of drastic correction — a feeling that lurked around and eventually consumed me because the world kept reminding me. Cartoons distinguished villains by giving them exaggerated or missing choppers. In movies, if you had noticeably bad teeth, you could be a goblin. Or a dope fiend. Or a Mississippian cannibal. If lucky, you could be the “not hot” dweeb who, by the third act, Frisbees their braces off and becomes Halle Berry. In real life, if I were roasted by friends or heckled by crowds during away games, my teeth were usually the target.
I remember how I felt when first clocking my date in the Barnes & Noble that night. She was sitting at one of those tiny and wobbly circular tables and smiled at me as I approached. I started to smile back, but then I felt like I’d just entered a room to take an exam I’d forgotten to study for. She’d seen all of the pictures on my profile. Her wanting to meet so quickly was an indicator of her enthusiastic approval of them. I was also at least five inches taller than her, which I know is a concern that women who meet men over the internet sometimes have. But she hadn’t seen my teeth. The pictures on my profile captured the range of possible looks I could have without revealing them — smirking during a wedding toast, holding my infant cousin and squinting at her, so close to the camera’s flash that all you saw in my mouth was an indistinguishable white. A gallery curated to hide what I believed needed to be hidden. I was a toothfish.
She’d have to see my teeth eventually though. A relationship can’t blossom if one of the people in it only opens their mouth when their partner blinks. So I decided to open-mouth smile back.
There are infinite possible reasons she could’ve decided that night that I was cool enough to be cool with, but not attractive enough to be more with. First dates are when you’re supposed to be discerning and particular. Which is a nice way of saying petty. And the gap between my front teeth is just one line in that poem.
But I also know enough Black women interested in Black men to know that the symmetrical contrast of straight bright whites against deep brown skin is a thing. And that meeting a man who doesn’t have that thing can be the visual equivalent of the “The Price Is Right” losing horn. And I know that in America, good, strong, bright, straight teeth signal good, strong, bright, straight money. The whiter the teeth, the whiter the credit. An open mouth is a résumé, a Carfax and a FICO score.