“Let Me See Your Smile” as Ugly Power Trip and Classification Struggle

“Let Me See Your Smile” as Ugly Power Trip and Classification Struggle 1

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Hold it. Smile![1] Alert reader C.O. tossed some links on smiling my way, no doubt in response to my constant grousing about people being told to take off their masks “because we want to see your smile.”[2] I cannot recall such a combination of hoity-toity disparagement and society-wide officiousness in my lifetime, unless it be against long hair when Hippies were a thing (and no matter what some might have thought at the time, hairstyles aren’t a life or death choice). Leveraging the smile against masks is cultural phenomenon I haven’t seen anyone tackle — perhaps because the opinion-havers among the PMC are themselves anti-maskers? — so I thought I would try. I need not rehearse the many examples I have already given in Water Cooler under the “maskstravaganza” heading, but here’s a new one:

Maybe I’d be smiling more if my knees weren’t jammed up under my chin because of the size of the seats, idk. And if I weren’t at risk of infection. In any case, this post will inquire into two ugly power trips social functions of smiling: As a class marker, and as a sign of submission. Between the two, I will take a brief detour, in order to point out that both social functions are an example of what Bourdieu would call a “classification struggle.”

The Smile as a Class Marker

As is well-known, teeth are a class marker. The working class is far more likely to have bad teeth. Even the CDC understands this. From “Disparities in Oral Health“:

About 40% of adults with low-income or no private health insurance have untreated cavities. Low-income or uninsured adults are twice as likely to have one to three untreated cavities and 3 times as likely to have four or more untreated cavities as adults with higher incomes or private insurance.

Studies confirm. From BMC Oral Health, “Use of oral health care services in the United States: unequal, inequitable—a cross-sectional study“:

After need-standardization, the group with the highest educational level had nearly 2.5 times- and the highest income had near three times less probability of not having a dental visit in the past 12 months than those with the lowest education and income, respectively.

From Bloomberg, “America’s Great Dental Divide“:

Income is key, as the Gallup-Healthways study surmised. People see a dentist more frequently in higher-income states. The correlation between the two is considerable (.66). But income is not the only factor to play a role. Using a statistical technique called partial correlation analysis, we can control for its effects and see how important other factors are. All the correlations we report below have income factored into the equation.

Dental visits closely track socioeconomic class. They are much higher in states where a higher percentage of the workforce is employed in knowledge, professional, and creative work. The creative class is significantly associated with dentist visits (.31). The same is true of the share of college graduates, a measure of the knowledge base and human capital in a state. The correlation between dental visits and college grads is even higher (.65). On the flip side, visits to the dentist are negatively associated with the working class share of a state’s workforce (-.28).

Bad teeth mean class-based real harms. From the New York Times, “How Dental Inequality Hurts Americans“:

People with bad teeth can be stigmatized, both in social settings and in finding employment. Studies document that we make judgments about one anotherincluding about intelligence — according to the aesthetics of teeth and mouth.

And from Deseret News, “No teeth means no job“:

Studies show bad teeth prevent otherwise qualified candidates from getting jobs or promotions. There is a social cost of going without dental care, too. Numerous studies show a strong correlation between appearance and income. Research by Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, found that better than average looking people earn 5 to 10 percent more than average looking people, who earn 5 to 10 percent more than below average looking people. “Teeth are an important component of physical appearance,” Hamermesh said.

But income isn’t the only thing impacted by the appearance of a person’s teeth. Researchers have noted pronounced negative associations with crooked, discolored and decaying teeth. Approximately 40 percent of respondents to a 2012 study by Kelton Research said that they would not date someone with crooked teeth. And about 73 percent said that people with straight teeth are more trustworthy.

Of course, if you’re a “creative class” influencer, say, you can buy yourself good teeth. From Dissent, “The Class Politics of Teeth“:

Better-off Americans routinely pay for elective procedures ranging from teeth whitening and veneers to complete “smile makeovers” costing many thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, more than one out of three low-income American adults avoids smiling because of poor oral health, according to a poll conducted for the American Dental Association (ADA) in 2015.

So the demand to take off your mask “because I want to see your smile” is a demand that you enable yourself to be classified by (social) class, and possibly be deemed not dateworthy, not trustworthy, and definitely not worth being hired. (Of course, this varies by context. In the airline context, I would imagine bad teeth would translate into poor service and a less-than-happy seatmate.) And now the brief interlude with Bourdieu–

Classification Struggle

From Pierre Bourdieu, Classification Struggles (2018), p. 56:

Classifications are a site of conflict…. Our starting point is the simple realization that people are engaged in a constant struggle to insult or classify each other — no need to give further examples — and that the daily struggles over classification are struggles to impose the dominant criterion…. The fact of knowing that the social world is an area of conflict allows us to question the work dof the classifier….

We see above that a demand for the modern, tooth-revealing smile allows classification by (social) class; bad teeth are a mark of being working (low) class. That’s a generalization, but the demand also takes a particular and personal form: To be classified as submissive. I would speculate that these two social functions of the modern smile are essential to ruling class elites, and that’s why they deprecate masks. (We know from Ron Klain’s interview of — really “by” — Caryle’s David Rubenstein that elites care about only two things, with Covid: Vax, and no masks.)

The Smile as a Sign of Submission

Humans are primates, and our ability to smile is a feature of being one such. From Scientific American, “How Did the “Smile” Become a Friendly Gesture in Humans?

“Baring one’s teeth is not always a threat. In primates, showing the teeth, especially teeth held together, is almost always a sign of submission. The human smile probably has evolved from that. In the primate threat, the lips are curled back and the teeth are apart–you are ready to bite. But if the teeth are pressed together and the lips are relaxed, then clearly you are not prepared to do any damage.

I cannot find any articles to quote on “the smile as a sign of submission,” sadly. In a way, that’s revealing; one doesn’t want to reveal too much of the machinery, after all. And who doesn’t love a smile?[3] Lacking a general theory of any sort, I will give four examples that show mask-wearers being put in a submissive position by dominating individuals operating with the anti-masking social sanction provided by our public health establishment, among others (see, e.g., Rochelle Wakensky: “The scarlet letter of this pandemic is the mask”). This doesn’t imply that those in the dominant position always dominate, or that those in the submissive position always submit, but that is the dynamic.

Example 1: A Walk-In Clinic:

Submissive: Mask-wearing patient. Dominant: Clinic staff. Sanction: CDC Infection Control Guidelines, which are antimask.

Example 2: A Hospital:

Submissive: Mask-wearing patient. Dominant: Clinic staff. Sanction: CDC Infection Control Guidelines, which are antimask.

Example 3: Wait Staff. From Catharine A. Mackinnon, Louise Fitzgerald, The UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, “Take off your mask so I know how much to tip you,” The UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center[4]. Eesh. Awful stuff:

Many workers report a dramatic increase in sexual harassment during the pandemic, which is compounded by having to ask customers to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols. Comments by male customers indicate that they feel entitled to demand that workers remove their protective gear, exposing them to the risk of illness or death, in order to obtain the tips they need to make up their base wage.

More than 40% of workers (41%) reported that there has been a noticeable change in the frequency of unwanted sexualized comments from customers, and just over one quarter (25%) report that they have experienced or witnessed a significant change in the frequency of such sexual harassment. ❖ Nearly 250 workers shared sexualized comments from customers, a substantial portion of which were requests from male customers that female service workers remove their mask so that they could judge their looks, and, implicitly, determine their tips on that basis.

A full 43% of the women who responded to the survey said that they themselves had received or witnessed unwanted sexual comments specifically related to CoVid-19 protocols, such as masks or physical distancing. Mask comments were particularly common. For example: • I wish I could see your pretty lips if they match ur eyes
• Your mask brings out your eyes! Smile for me.
• The patrons make comment about using the mask in a bedroom.
Male customers would frequntly demand that their server take off her mask, as if the woman server stripping came with the meal:
• “Take your mask off I want to see what’s underneath” is the most mild of them all.

Submissive: Mask-wearing waitstaff. Dominant: Customer. Sanction: the tipping relation, sexism.

Example 4: School Bus. From the Des Moines Register, “Johnston schools officials working with police after anti-mask flyer handed out to elementary students“:

According to an email to Beaver Creek Elementary School families Friday, a parent put the flyers in students’ backpacks at a bus stop on Thursday. With a heading of, ‘We want to see your smile,’ the flyer went on to say, “If you don’t want to wear a mask, please ask your parents to write the school board and tell them how you feel.”

Submissive: School children. Dominant: Unknown activist. Sanction: Speculating, anti-mask fervor.


So we can see not only that “Let me see your smile” allows you to be classified into (social) class, with attendant harms, it places you in a submissive position to a dominant actor. In each case, your ability to protect your own health — and the health of those around you — is compromised. Black Girl In Maine tweets:

I don’t know what to do about this, except to keep doing the right thing and advocating for it. A society that demands infectious behavior from its members cannot survive long; one can only hope we pull out of the nose-dive in time.


[1] Although the ability to smile is considered a cultural universal, actual smiles and the appropriateness of smiling differ across cultures and over time. To give a few of the nuggets I collected: Thailand (“Land of Smiles”) divides smiles into thirteen named classifications, so “Let me see your smile” could be demanded with more precision in that country than here. There is a famous story of a prime minister who, during a press conference, answered all questions only with the appropriate smile, drawn from that repertoire. (In America, we have a popular tips on smiling, but no real classification accepted society-wide.)

Eastern Europe is a different story. During an anti-corruption campaign:

Stickers with the message “A smile is the best gift to your doctor” were on almost every door at the Vilnius hospital and outpatient clinic in 2017. “Do patients continue to bring envelopes?” I asked family doctor Loreta, who also had the sticker on her office door. “Sure,” she said, confirming that she continued getting money and chocolates. “But what about the stickers,” I asked. She smiled, shook her head and recounted how one of her patients came in on the day after every TV station in Lithuania ran a report about the anti-corruption campaign: “So, the next day he comes in and gives me the box of chocolates. I say to him ‘haven’t you seen the report on TV yesterday—I cannot take anything from you.’ He went mad, ‘This is my gift to you from the bottom of my heart and none of those idiots on TV can tell me what to do—whether I can say thank you to my doctor or not! This is my gift. I never go empty-handed; I can’t. You cannot refuse, my doctor.’”… These stickers were not working, according to the doctor; smiles are not something that Eastern Europeans are known for.

Here’s an example of what I mean by a smile. From a photo taken four days before Walensky came down with Covid:

The open-mouthed smile, showing teeth, is OK (though that was not always true; historians say originated in pre-revolutionary Paris, along with the profession of dentistry). The only person in that photo not smiling is the person holding his mask in his hand; the corners of his mouth are turned down. At best, we might call that an ironic smile, or a dry smile.

[2]. “CORDELIA: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.” William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene 1.

[3] From “Smile When You Say That, Partner“:

This is why many companies that depend heavily on a telemarketing sales force have mirrors installed in front of the phones, so the callers will start every call with a smile—and keep on smiling. Not surprisingly, prospects they call will envision a smiling person, because the smile adds sparkle to our vocal tones.

[4] This seems to be a deliverable from the Times Up project, one of the few I have seen,

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