After landing in Bogotá, I was greeted by smiles like white laser beams. The combined dazzle of the staff at the national airline’s information desk is mesmerising – enough to make one forget about one’s delayed connection or missing bag. While they may well have been naturally blessed with dental perfection, in the 20 minutes it takes to shuffle from arrivals to a taxi, I lost count of the number of adults whose mouths were crammed with metal. Among them were at least three suited executives, a frazzled mum, a bathroom attendant and a fully kitted-out soldier, who looked like a schoolboy who’d raided a dressing-up box. I had a terrible flashback to my awkward teenage years. But unlike me at 14, these Colombians seemed proud of their braces.
Juan David, a 27-year-old tour guide, tells me that one of the first things he did when he moved from Caracas to Bogotá was to book an appointment with an orthodontist. He’s had his braces for about six weeks and whips out his phone to show me a “before” picture. They seemed like perfectly passable teeth to me, at least by British standards. But near enough wasn’t good enough for David, who is keen to make the “best impression” on his customers and, more importantly, to find a wife. “Braces show you look after yourself and here a nice smile makes a difference.” To understand exactly what sort of difference, it helps to know a bit about life in Bogotá.
Latin America is the world’s most unequal continent and Colombia is Latin America’s most unequal country. Unsurprisingly, economic stratification is a preoccupation in the country’s capital. Each neighbourhood in Bogotá has an officially designated estrato (rank) between one, for the very poor, and six, for the super-wealthy. The system is organised so that the people living in the richer neighbourhoods pay more for services like electricity, water and sewage than those in the poorer ones. While this system helps the poor financially, it also stigmatises people in the lower estratos. A sniffy Bogotan might say of someone they consider to be a social inferior, “Oh her, she’s from estrato dos.” Roberto Lippi, a United Nations official who is based in Colombia, has likened Bogotá’s estratos to a caste system.
Bogotans are also particularly appearance-conscious. Alexander Edmonds, an anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh who has written about the popularity of plastic surgery in Brazil, observes that attractiveness can “grant power to those excluded from other systems of privilege”. Expensive braces indicate a willingness to invest in one’s future. Michael Stanfeld, a professor at the University of San Francisco who has researched the role of aesthetics in Latin America, believes that highly visible orthodontic work is a clear sign that someone belongs to the “classe emergente”. Getting your teeth done is the equivalent of dressing for the job you want instead of the one you have.
British expats, who tend to live in the more luxurious estratos but whose smiles often resemble playing-cards scattered by an angry drunk, find that their teeth invite scrutiny and ridicule from their well-to-do neighbours. “I’d never in 30 years had so much exposure to ‘teeth talk’ than in my six months in Colombia,” one tells me. “I was told numerous times I should have them ‘fixed’, which you’d never be told in the UK.” Another says the pressure was so incessant that she finally capitulated: “I have braces now and I would never have got them back at home.” As for me, I’m scrubbing hard with the best toothpaste my pesos can buy before anyone can pity my flat-white-stained overbite.