HARGEISA, 9 October 2009 (Somalilandpress) – 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 as coloureds 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”, after a populous neighbourhood.
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.
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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 increased, 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 per cent had modified their teeth of which 44.8 percent were male, in the only study of its kind.
Peer pressure was cited by 42 per cent while 10 per cent removed their teeth due to gangsterism practices – a huge problem on the Cape Flats – a mainly coloured area on the outskirts of Cape Town.
“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.”