Japanese women used to blacken their teeth and shave off their eye brows post marriage, prior to the mid nineteenth century. Ohagaru was practiced up until the Meiji era. It is interesting to view this custom through the lens of our current 21C obsession with very white teeth. Some see this as further evidence of the control and denigration of the human rights of Japanese women in their traditional society, whilst others disagree with this conclusion. Early western anthropologists described ohagaru as an abhorrent custom, which disfigured women. The custom was, also, practiced in parts of China by particular minority groups.

A Mark of Girls Coming of Age in Asia

It is recorded in the seventeenth century by Spanish colonial officials that this practice, also, occurred in the Philippines. Other countries where the black teeth regime for women was practiced were Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and various Pacific Islands. It was a ritualistic mark of girls coming of age as women in parts of Asia for millennia. Its social function was involved in the determination of the status of women within these societies. The obvious result to western eyes was to make the married woman less attractive to those who observed her. This, however, was not the case in traditional Japanese society, where it was a sign of sexual maturity and beauty.

Black & White Issues

The black and white polarity plays out throughout humanity’s many interests and values. White teeth are considered today to be a mark of youth, beauty and purity. Movie stars in Hollywood are signposted by their gleaming chompers on screen, no matter what type of character they may be portraying. Dentists are making a fortune from our current obsession with white teeth as an aesthetic imperative. Click here for more to see an example of a modern dental practice philosophical approach to dentistry in the 21C.

Blackening Agents

In Vietnam, Si La men painted their teeth red and the women theirs’ black. The interesting thing about this practice is that the blackening agents used, often, protected their teeth and enamel from decay. In Japan, they utilised iron filings in vinegar with some vegetable tannins to create the blackening agent. The agent needed to be applied daily or every few days to maintain the effect. In India they employed a mixture of iron and copper sulphate with vegetable tannins, such as myrobalans. Islamic cultures, also, employed the teeth blackening ritual as part of the female sexual cycle. Prostitutes had black teeth to symbolise their sexual maturity.