Much like her shiny hair and warm eyes, the space between Geneva Aguirre's front teeth has always been a part of her look. When she was little, Aguirre used to stick a flavored toothpick in the gap — just because it would fit and no one else could do it. It made her unique.
It wasn't until Aguirre noticed iconic gap-toothed model Lauren Hutton in the pages of her favorite fashion magazines that she realized her smile was not only unique, but maybe even beautiful.
"I guess I've always thought of it as a cool thing," says Aguirre, 48, of Concord, Calif.
These days, so does the beauty industry. Gap-toothed models were all over the runways at this season's Paris Fashion Week. Instead of fixing their teeth, some of Hollywood's freshest faces, like Anna Paquin and Elisabeth Moss, proudly sport a midline diastema, the dental term for the gap. And, last month, on "America's Next Top Model," host Tyra Banks sent a 22-year-old contestant from Boise, Idaho, to the dentist to widen her gap. The beauty blogosphere has been buzzing ever since.
Men sport the gap, too, but culturally, there has always been a mystique about diastematic women. In Ghana, Namibia and Nigeria, a gap in women's teeth is a sign of beauty and fertility, says Bernice Agyekwena, a Ghanaian journalist and Gates Fellow of African Agriculture at the University of California Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
"Some women even go to the extent of creating an artificial gap in their teeth because they want to meet the traditional standards set for African beauty," she says.
In the Western world, our fascination dates back to the Middle Ages, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in "The Canterbury Tales" of the gap-toothed wife of Bath and her lustful ways.
But, experts believe our new interest in the diastema represents a backlash against unattainable beauty standards and an obsession with perfection.
"I think for so long the look was cookie-cutter beauty, and it doesn't stand out," says Heather Muir, beauty news editor for Allure magazine in New York. "We're shifting to a more quirky beauty, and I think that includes women who have very fair skin, many freckles or frizzy, big hair."
Two gap-toothed models in particular, Jac Jagaciak and Lindsey Wixson, caught Allure editors' eyes last week on the Paris runways, Muir says. She also calls attention to recent ads by Chanel, Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu. All feature models with gaps between their teeth.
"This could be a confidence booster to a lot of girls out there who are 12 or 13 and mortified because they have a gap," she says. "Now's the time to let whatever is interesting about your look shine through. Embrace it."
For the most part, dentists agree. "From a clinical standpoint, there's no advantage to closing it," says Tim Patel, a Walnut Creek, Calif., dentist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco's School of Dentistry. If the gap is small, Patel may suggest fixing it to avoid periodontal issues down the line. Food can get stuck in there, after all.
Otherwise, he's OK with it. "Obviously, I like to see perfectly straight teeth with no diastema," he says. "But if patients like it, I certainly don't try to encourage them to change it. By and large, it's an aesthetic issue."