Japan’s Yaeba Trend and Cosmetic Infantilization

Benjamin B. alerted us to a New York Times story about a new trend in Japan: yaeba. Some young Japanese women are now having dentists artificially enlarge their incisors so as to achieve a look associated with a small mouth crowded with teeth:

Here’s some dental work to that effect, borrowed from the “after” pictures on a dentist’s website:

Michelle Phan, who blogged about the trend, explained:

It’s not like here, where perfect, straight, picket-fence teeth are considered beautiful. In Japan, in fact, crooked teeth are actually endearing, and it shows that a girl is not perfect. And, in a way, men find that more approachable than someone who is too overly perfect.

Communication Studies professor Dr. Emilie Zaslow had something different to say.  She argued that the trend represented a fixation with youth, the sexualization of girls, and pressure on women to infantilize themselves:

…the naturally occurring yaeba is because of delayed baby teeth, or a mouth that’s too small.

In other words, having a crowded mouth makes you look younger, like a girl instead of a woman. Now, it’s easy to judge Japan as being weird and sexually-suspect, but we have practices with exactly the same effect here in the U.S. Consider the preponderance of bleach blonde hair in America. It’s a natural hair color in some children, very rare in adulthood, and adopted mostly by adult women, not men. Let’s add baby doll dresses and shaving our pubes to the list.

This is a disturbing transnational phenomenon, then, and what I like about the Yaeba example is that it’s unfamiliar enough to Americans that we can see it for what it is. And, if we can see it for what it is, we can turn our lens onto our own culture and see the things we do in a whole new light.

This post originally appeared at Sociological Images. Reprinted with permission. Photos from Dental Salon Plaisir.


  1. Feminist Metalhead says:

    I used to be glued to makeup tutorials like Michelle Phan. I have nothing against her she’s brilliant and pretty but they made me feel really really bad about myself. I simply can’t afford absolutely any cosmetic they recommend in magazines or in the tutorials on YouTube. Once I stopped consuming them I felt better about myself. I just accepted that my family struggles on the poverty line and that means no extra.

  2. Those are actually canines, not incisors.

  3. I don’t think it’s that simple. The fact that the phenomenon is ‘unknown’ in the US doesn’t automatically endow Westerners with the knowledge to judge it, as if we were objective judges of the evils of the world when we haven’t directly fabricated them ourselves (…really? haven’t we all heard this argument before? …Post-colonialist discourse, anyone?)

    If anything, background cultural knowledge of any phenomenon is what allows us to analyze it. The more the better. You’d think that feminists would know that better than anyone.

    This article has some Orientalist aspects. Not just that last paragraph, which I find very problematic, but the very brief analysis of the matter, settling with Zaslow’s conclusion rather than Phan’s (and the complete dismissal of Phan’s point without further discussion), in an incredibly reductionist, limited, and matter-of-fact approach.

    I understand infantilization of women is a huge problem in both Japan and the West and responds to the context that both are patriarchal societies. But that does not allow for generalizations such as these just to try and prove a point, most especially when the ones doing the analysis are the Westerners, and the phenomenon analysed is the Other’s (whose apparent input isn’t taken into account).

    Shall we open the debate instead? Perhaps ask fellow Japanese feminists what they think?

  4. I’ve seen what accounts for porn in Japan and I just gotta say, NOTHING surprises me anymore about that country!

  5. The part that disturbed me the most from Michelle Phan’s quote about yaeba was “…it shows that a girl is not perfect. And, in a way, men find that more approachable than someone who is too overly perfect.”

    I agree with a lot of Laura’s points about needing proper context that Western women may not have before we react to a trend that is not culturally our own, but I think it’s disturbing that this trend is happening because men are ‘too intimidated’ to approach women. Why is the answer to that dilemma that women must cosmetically alter themselves instead of “Hey men, get some confidence, then approach me”?

    • umm.. no. japanese women find it cute as well that’s why they do it. they won’t do it if they think it’s ugly just for the sake of getting men. in my perspective, i find women who wear thick make up very unattractive. but americanized women wear thick make up anyways. wouldn’t an american woman be annoyed if someone says american women in general wear thick make up just to please men instead of “”hey men, get some confidence, then approach me””???

      honestly, some people should just accept that different cultures have different standards of beauty.

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