The strange allure of the toothbrush selfie

Why are candid mid-brushing pictures such an enduring social media flex?

by Anna Samson
13 April 2021, 7:00am

Left image from Gucci's AW20 campaign, right image via Instagram

After a year of mostly staying inside (bar the couple of months in summer 2020 when everyone tried their best to pretend that things were fine when they were very much not fine) the opportunities for showing off online have been steadily dwindling. At first there were piles of books we finally had the time to read, intricate meals that soaked up the long hours of event-free evenings, and sourdough loaves of varying degrees of success. But twelve months on, the giddy rush of #quarantine content has almost dissipated into the ether – except, intriguingly,  for the humble toothbrush selfie. 

From massive stars to regular folks via Instagram influencers, it seems that nobody is immune to the temptation of posting their dental routine online. Back in 2014 Miley Cyrus shared a (since-deleted) picture of herself with the caption “when I'm up I never wanna go to sleep. when I'm sleepin I never wanna get up” [sic]. With her hair scraped up into a topknot, her foamy mouth and T-shirt and pants combo, it was an intimate snap of a celebrity at the height of her fame. This little peek behind the curtain is key to the toothbrush selfie. 

Other celebrities have followed suit, giving us a glimpse of their getting ready process. Emily Ratajkowski captioned her toothbrush picture “so fresh and so clean clean”, while Kaia Gerber went with a simple “this is 2020” for her moody mirror selfie. Beyoncé, never one to do the expected, hasn’t ever posted a toothbrush selfie, but did once share a boomerang of herself flossing with her daughter Blue Ivy Carter (the kind of flossing that you lie to your dentist and insist that you do every day, not the dance).

For the rich and famous, these images are a way to say ‘look at me, I’m just like you’, as they scrub away the plaque in softly-lit marble-tiled bathrooms. “There’s something about the bathroom space that feels intimate and organic –- it’s a deeply personal place where private grooming rituals take place unseen, and granting followers access is a way for influencers to cultivate a deeper relationship with their audience,” explains Olivia Yallop, author of upcoming influencer study Break the Internet and creative director at The Digital Fairy. “Of course, the whole thing is highly stage-managed and designed to flatter: nobody is filming themselves gargling Listerine!”

There’s often a thirst trap element present to these pictures too. Toothbrushes have the same quietly seductive, vaguely phallic qualities as lollipops and cigarettes, and you’re rarely fully dressed when you brush your teeth — you’re probably wearing pyjamas, or underwear, or a baggy T-shirt that could be borrowed from someone outside the frame. But it all stays firmly on the wholesome side; what better way to project to the world that you’re just a simple gal or guy, who cares about keeping their teeth sparkling and their breath minty fresh? 

As with most celebrity-led social media trends, it wasn’t long before the toothbrush selfie filtered down to the rest of us mere mortals.

London-based fashion stylist Nick didn’t think too much before recently posting a picture of himself brushing his teeth on Instagram either – he was quite simply feeling great. “It was spontaneous,” he says. “The sun was coming through the window and into the room, and I simply felt overwhelming confidence to smash the day ahead. The toothbrush in the mouth was but a prop and an excuse to take the selfie for this little Instagram story photoshoot.” 

Of course, the toothbrush selfie is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad of ways we manipulate the way we present ourselves online, and create digital portraits that show off what we want and leave out what we don’t. This came into sharp focus during the recent revelation that some influencers don’t even use mirrors for their “mirror selfies”. Instead, a second camera or phone is used to take the picture, and the phone in hand is just a useless prop. In this case, the process isn’t important – we want to perform a version of intimacy, and if that means bending the truth a little, then so be it.

Nick toothbrush pic.png

As Nick says, grabbing a toothbrush creates a ‘reason’ for you to be photographing yourself – the image now has a narrative behind it. We use social media to tell stories about ourselves and, with the world mainly closed down, people need to find excuses to satisfy the urge to post photos of themselves online. “Toothbrushes are an ironic, pandemic-proof substitution for alternative lifestyle props usually seen in influencer shots – you can't pose with sunglasses or Starbucks coffee cups when you're stuck inside at home,” says Olivia.

This approach to the digital self portrait has found its way into high fashion during the pandemic too. For the Fall 2020 Gucci campaign, creative director Alessandro Michele sent out the season’s looks to his favourite models and asked them to photograph their life at home under quarantine. In amongst the sweeping and the gardening, there was of course a model brushing his teeth. He’s looking down the camera as he polishes his pearly whites, in the kind of bathroom that is more house-share in Clapton than Milan Fashion Week. It’s about as relatable as fashion photography gets – if you can forget that the Gucci Y-fronts he’s wearing retail for a cool £150

A model in his bathroom brushes his teeth in Gucci underwear for Gucci's AW20 campaign
Gucci AW20 campaign

And if you needed any more reason to take pictures of yourself in the bathroom mirror, a small study indicated that taking videos on your phone while you brush your teeth could help to improve your technique. Participants became more aware of their approach to the task, and were more receptive to changing their bad habits when it came to oral hygiene. So next time you find yourself reaching for your phone while you’re brushing, you can feel safe in the knowledge that you’re not only continuing the long tradition of Colgate chic – you’re also making your dentist proud.