Global Health Nexus, Winter 2004

Message from the Dean

What defines the very essence of beauty?

Each day for all of us, beauty is a factor drawing us to people, places, and things — inviting us to change our smiles, decorate our homes in a distinctive style, buy a particular car, computer, bathing suit, or briefcase. But what defines the very essence of beauty? Why is one architectural style more beautiful than another, one computer so much more aesthetically pleasing than its competitor? Beginning with the Egyptians, philosophers, theologians, architects, builders, decorators, designers, psychologists, sociologists, and artists of all types have tried to develop a unified theory that would clarify the meaning of beauty.

But if there is one thing that our postmodern, relativist culture has taught us, it is that beauty varies in different groups in different societies, and according to which group is making the determination. The old cliché that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” today means not only that beauty is subjective but also that it is culturally constructed and unquestionably valid only at a particular time in the culture’s history.

That argument would help to explain the variability and dizzying rapidity of change regarding acceptable standards of human beauty in 21st century America. From body piercings to snow-white teeth, these standards seem to change daily and to be defined largely by age group and other demographic factors, rather than by a common culture.

Along with constantly shifting standards of beauty, popular TV reality shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” further complicate the issue by creating the impression, if not the expectation, that everyone can be beautiful. Indeed, an end-of-the-year article in The New York Times alluded to our national attraction to “quick fixes” and “cosmetic makeovers” by noting that “An essential component of beauty is being undermined and will soon be practically eliminated, and that is its scarcity. Botox is to cosmetics what cut-and-paste software is to music production. Whatever was precious five minutes ago becomes overbearingly omnipresent five minutes from now. The quest for beauty coupled with technological proficiency undermines the relative value of each beautiful invention.”

In this issue of Global Health Nexus, we invite you to join us in exploring the question: What is beauty? We begin with an essay by author-illustrator Sheila Samton on beauty and its manifestations in our specific culture, followed by an explanation of the guidelines that dentists use to determine what constitutes a beautiful smile. Next, we hear from four giants in the field of aesthetic dentistry: Dr. Irwin Smigel, Dr. Ronald E. Goldstein, Dr. K. William Mopper, and Dr. Larry Rosenthal. We’ll also take a look at what NYU Dentistry is doing to introduce predoctoral students to aesthetics — the fastest-growing area in dentistry today — and at a new technology that is enabling dentists to select the aesthetically perfect shade for veneers. We conclude our discussion with another kind of aesthetic focus — this one on treating patients with cleft lip and palate to enable them to lead more fully integrated lives.

A Flawless Accreditation Site Visit

For all of us at NYU Dentistry who have been preparing rigorously for the past several years, the November 2003 visit of reviewers for the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) culminated in what can only be described as a “beautiful” result. NYU Dentistry received the highest level of accreditation accorded by the CODA: zero recommendations for improvement in any of its programs. In addition, NYU Dentistry was awarded 27 commendations recognizing the quality of its clinical care and basic science programs, research, and the enthusiasm of students, faculty, and staff. The next issue of Global Health Nexus will include a detailed discussion of the accreditation process and its outcomes. But I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding teamwork of our entire community — the true engine of our success.

Other significant achievements that you’ll read about in this issue include the elimination of a proposed rule that would have effectively nullified the dental Graduate Medical Education (GME) program retroactively; becoming the first U.S. dental school to mandate student terrorism preparedness training; the expansion and modernization of NYU Dentistry’s library facilities; a unique partnership between NYU Dentistry and the Colgate-Palmolive Company’s Bright Smiles, Bright Futures program to bring more dental services to needy New York City youngsters; and a number of competitive federal grants as well as private–sector awards that reflect NYU Dentistry’s thriving research environment. NYU Dentistry also continues to broaden its influence globally in the areas of continuing education, research, and clinical care, and in this issue you’ll have a chance to hear from people who are involved on all these fronts.

All of us at NYU Dentistry take pride in the achievements of the past year and look forward to continuing to organize our resources and foster innovations that will enable us to stay ahead of changing times. If the past several years are an indication, we’re in for a very exciting and rewarding future.