What Your Teeth Tell Me About Your Social Class

A recent sorority recruitment video from the University of Alabama last month was critically received on the internet for what some claimed were racist overtones. The nearly all-white, bikini and lingerie clad sorority sisters portrayed pranced happily throughout the over-5 minute long video, never opening a book, attending a class, or even appearing to be affiliated with a learning environment. As a college instructor, the mother of a young girl, and self-proclaimed feminist, I mentally ripped the video apart when I saw it. I also conceded that the video was probably racially insensitive, but my biggest concern with the video and the women portrayed lay in another vein: classism. As I watched the women on the video, my working-class roots reared up, and I nearly screamed at my computer screen, “what college aged woman can afford those clothes? The highlighted hair? The manicured nails?!?” And then I vented to Julie Withers on Facebook. It went something like this:

“Arrrggg!!!”

“Gggrrrr!!!”

“Exactly!!!”

We often focus on race and ethnicity as the great dividers in American Society, but in reality, I would argue that race and ethnicity differences are secondary to class today, as the great divider, and the sorority video illustrated that. Watch the video, and tell me how many ways Class is displayed. :

I pick up on the class things more than race. Who can afford those clothes? Those teeth? Manicures, pedicures, fake nails, tanning. The expense of bleaching and highlighting your hair like that? My students sometimes can’t eat daily because they pay tuition, rent, can’t find a job in our over-educated town with 30,000 other students willing to work for minimum wage; how can anyone afford the expense of paying sorority dues and buying the crap needed to belong to one with such high material expectations?

But the ultimate class differences are in perfectly capped teeth. Anyone can get hair and makeup and pretty clothes done for a video shoot; the teeth are the inescapable sign that scream “upper class” in the sorority video.

A fascinating article in the online magazine, Aeon, discusses the poverty of a crooked set of teeth brilliantly. The author, Sarah Smarsh, not a sociologist but definitely a journalist-ethnographer, tells the story of teeth far better than my ranting. Check out the article here.

My baby teeth were straight and white, and I wasn’t obese – an epidemic among poor kids that hadn’t yet taken hold in the 1980s – but I had plenty of ‘tells’: crooked bangs, trimmed at home with sewing shears; a paper grocery sack carrying my supplies on the first day of school while other kids wore unicorn backpacks; a near-constant case of ringworm infection (I kept a jar of ointment on my nightstand year-round); the smell of cigarette smoke on my clothes, just as cigarettes were falling out of favour with the middle and upper classes; sometimes, ill-fitting clothes, as when the second-grade teacher I revered looked at my older cousin’s shirt sagging off my shoulder and said: ‘Tell your mother to send you to school in clothes that fit you.’ In fifth grade, a girl noticed my generic, plastic-smelling, too-pointy boots – a Kmart version of the black leather lace-ups that were in fashion – and for weeks hounded me before and after school, kicking dirt on my shins and calling me Pippi Longstocking.” — Sarah Smarsh

One thought on “What Your Teeth Tell Me About Your Social Class

  1. Maria

    This was a very interesting article. Many of the author’s points about social class resonated with me except for the statement that the video illustrates that race is secondary to class. As the author noted, there were not even any people of color in the video. The actual exclusion or invisibility of racial/ethnic minorities (along with other video attributes) signals that race still is significant dividing factor. It doesn’t seem a useful exercise to try to figure out whether race OR social class is still relevant in our society. As it has been in this country’s history and today, both are still sources of inequality and stratification. In fact, it seems particularly important that feminists (like the author) lead the way in acknowledging intersections among identity groups and the implications for inequality and exclusion, e.g., the likelihood that women of color – especially Latina and Black – would not be in this U. Alabama sorority (even if they wanted to) or in its video, regardless of their social class backgrounds. Furthermore, stating that social class is more of an issue than race ignores the significant social science literature showing that the social class experiences of women of color and White women include similarities but also huge differences. The author concedes that the video is “probably racially insensitive” but her “biggest concern” was the social class issue, which is more important now than race. That framing itself illustrates the fundamental challenge with race that we still have as a country (our reluctance to acknowledge it and tendency to minimize racism as an older, less in vogue concern); and it doesn’t resonate with what we’re still seeing today in terms of treatment of people of color, including poor people of color, men of color, women of color, etc. Again, great article but I hope in the future people use examples like this as opportunities to highlight complex connections among types of oppression and inequality that can help us address all of them, rather than contests over which is worse, racism or classism. Alternatively, the same article without the minimizing of racism (or even the discussion of it, if race was not the author’s intended focus) would have been more effective.

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