If you’re like us, the summer Olympics have had you glued to the TV. Not only is there a sport for every interest; watching the best athletes in the world perform at their peak is inspiring, exhilarating, and – let’s face it – a bit humbling to us mortals sitting on the couch watching.
These athletes have sacrificed many of the things we take for granted to train and compete in this one particular moment – this historical moment.
Certainly of the competitors, we all have our favorites. But never has it been more clear that we see the rest of world as we are, through our own lens, with our own biases. And never has that lens seemed so disrespectful and, frankly, cruel than in the curious incident of Olympian Chinese swimmer Sun Yang.
The moment Yang knew he had won the 200m men’s freestyle, he reacted like any of us would – with a fist bump, a shout of triumph, and a very big smile.
Unfortunately for Yang, that instant smile generated a firestorm of negative, insulting, and sophomoric comments about the appearance of his teeth, tarnishing the gold medalist’s moment of sheer joy.
In most developed countries, having straight, white teeth is a signifier of class. And while dental hygiene is an ongoing issue in China, according to a study from the International Dental Journal from 2005 among adults in China, “56 percent held the attitude that tooth loss is natural and inevitable,” and many had never heard of dental plaque or the effect of sugar on teeth.
However, crooked teeth can function as well as straight teeth, and having crooked teeth is not a sign of poor hygiene; it just means not everyone lives up to a Western, mainly American, standard of aesthetics.
And as one Twitter user put it,
Making fun of Sun Yang's teeth is not funny at all. There isn't a prevalent dental awareness in China and in many developing countries.
— Heidi Han (@heidi_han) August 9, 2016
If you have the money and the luck to live in a country with an emphasis on dental health, you are at least a person of good fortune when it comes to your teeth and their impact on your overall health. But if you decide to open your fortunate mouth to judge, insult, and hurt another, it won’t be your teeth but your words that become your biggest embarrassment.
The thing is, teeth can always be fixed.