Bad Teeth Shaming: The Tales Teeth Tell and the Great Dental Divide
If you were raised in poverty, it’s inadequate nutrition and limited access to healthcare that’s more responsible for the level and stability of oral health than sugar, or even cigarettes and meth. It’s the lack of finances, support and a regular diet of super processed foods that ensures the line of dental marginalisation.
It’s a familiar trick for the underprivileged to be priced out or overlooked in a system and perversely, be held responsible for it. The underfunding of public education wouldn’t even get airplay but for the bleating criticism hurled at a struggling institution.
Having bad teeth is often blamed solely on the person; and in that lies an unjustifiable shaming.
In the true form of any bad relationship, a system that shuns you simultaneously creates a rejection response of it not being needed anyway. Friends, colleagues or relatives without medical or dental cover will sometimes point out – accurately or not – the immorality or corrupt illegitimacy of that industry and present it as unprincipled to support rather than impossible to afford.
Even with a full-time job. Such is the widening financial fiasco of collapsing currencies, supply chains and other mysterious happenings.
There is daily psychological stress attached to having poor teeth – what food may help or harm them, what DIY method might actually work; how to smile and hold your mouth so they’re a little less noticeable.
Body ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner (1956) is a satire of the anthropology of 1950s American society’s obsession with self-image. In particular, the ritualistic practices for constant improvement. Nacirema (American backwards) is a little known tribe somewhere between Mexico and Canada renown for its highly developed economy, plentiful natural environment and obsession with physical appearance. Many daily rituals are performed to fend off illness, one of which involves the mouth:
“The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite … [that] consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.”
More than seventy years later, this obsession has even greater compulsion. And nowhere more apparent than in the prevailing American fixation with perfectly straight, perfectly white, teeth.
Individually, cosmetic dentistry provides another medium through which to examine broader sociological concerns of the ‘body project’ – particularly the exponential emphasis on outward appearance and self-identity. Over the last decade, cosmetic dentistry has a marked shift in oral health being predominantly functional. It has extended to signify a core self-worth connection that becomes more and more reliant on conforming to the narrowing confines of acceptable external appearance.
While social media is a huge contributor, the preoccupation with dental perfection is biologically, culturally and socially inherent.
The aligned concepts of French philosopher and political activist Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and fellow countryman, sociologist and intellectual Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) primarily addressed the dynamic of power and knowledge as a form of social control.
It’s the basic glue of anthropology, biology, dentistry, sociology and psychology – singularly; and whenever it wants to hold hands.
Were all those mentions and markers landing strip edge lights, it’s a luminous runway in a vastly unexplained place.
The symbolism of white is pretty simple. Western culture associates the colour with godly purity, cheery cleanliness, goodnessly good goodness, and flawlessly unflawed perfection. It’s a dove, a physician’s coat, the royal icing of a wedding cake and the general representation of all that has servants and minions and nary a grime to be had.
Whiter teeth signify youthfulness. Metabolic disease, systemic conditions, medications and ageing discolour and wear enamel. Misaligned teeth are more difficult to brush and floss, which can lead caries, swollen gums, and periodontal disease.
The association between good teeth and good health is now an extreme sport.
Most notably in North America. The deafening pitstops with precision teams of influencers and clinicians driving the force of the perfect smile deem even the slightest imperfection aesthetically abhorrent and imperative to adjust, replace or repair. For the lucky, the segue to cosmetic procedures later on in life is a pursuit initiated by childhood dental corrections paid for by their parents.
In the equally wealthy nation of Japan, there is an appreciation for more natural looking teeth than those to which the US subscribes. In Japan, Yaeba (imperfect smiles) are intentionally sought. Commonly known as ‘snaggletooth’ it is considered both endearingly softening, and youthful in women.
The British too, prefer a more natural smile with the general view of the American version as starkly uniform and artificial, from shape to shade. Somehow that oversteps the thin blue vanity line between making the best of yourself, and becoming your best self because you want to look like somebody else.
Often Barbie or Ken or something Kardashian.
It seems that the relentless pursuit of happiness is all Americans have left of its Declaration of Independence. Life and liberty are certainly on increasingly tenuous ground. It appears to focus on the expression self-image in order to simply reflect and genuflect impossible notions. They perpetuate not the flow of spiritual happiness but in the proportion of Noah Two-By-Two, conspicuous and constant consumption.
So the pursuit of happiness is just more pursuit. Investing in teeth is really another investment. Face real estate for the product that each and every one of us has become.
The road to happiness is straight, white and apparently fluoride-infused flawless. Is there a tyre pressure for the tired pressure?
More than anatomical structures, teeth are imbued with evolutionarily preference, symbolism, histories, cultural norms and social values. The ripple effect is the beauty ideal projected across a range of modalities, attaching values to what is worth achieving. According to Foucault, it’s in the context of power and discipline that modern society governs individuals.
His focus was what could be achieved through the ‘social disciplining’ of people. He considered individuals as construction sites for society’s power – exercised through discipline. Training and regulating techniques (ergo disciplining) required ‘hierarchical observation’, ‘normalising judgment’ and ‘examination’.
Hierarchical observation is control achieved by the illusion of continuous surveillance because the effect of that surveillance is permanent, even if it it’s discontinuous. It allows those in presumed positions of authority (a prison guard for example) to observe a subordinate group (inmates from a central tower), and assumed to be constant since the inmates can’t tell when they’re being watched.
It’s designed to assure an automatic functioning of power even when the central tower is empty.
After that little goosebumpy bit, you know what the other two are intended to achieve.
Since there’s such and much diversity in body, mind and soul in the world, the sociological implications of dental super-perfection reinforces class differences. It contributes to the social inequalities and the stigma attached to those suffering unfortunate levels of oral health. Improving it is a costly venture. It requires physical capital to capitalise on the physical.
The respected endorsers of cosmetic dental procedures and products dispense what’s indispensable to social success and high disposable income.
Almost a century ago, American sociologist and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist W.E.B du Bois (1868-1963) remarked, “Perhaps the most extraordinary characteristic of current America is the attempt to reduce life to buying and selling. Life is not love unless love is sex and bought and sold. Life is not knowledge save knowledge of technique, of science for destruction. Life is not beauty except beauty for sale. Life is not art unless its price is high and it is sold for profit. All life is production for profit, and for what is profit but for buying and selling again?”
Supremacy of course is nothing new. Wealthy patricians ran the Roman Empire. Plebeians worked the farms, baked the bread and built the walls. The rest of the workforce – a third of the population – were slaves.
The history of humans is a mire of inequality. Much like mud-on-the-boots Miriam in D.H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
Most early civilisations had social strata and not as straightforward as simply those in power and those who were not. At the beginning of the Bronze Age human families had quite intimate relationships across various social levels. Early human societies appear to have operated in a complex, class-based system where lower social classes and elites lived together, and women migrated from other communities.
It makes a far more interesting tale told by a tooth than the contemporary ones about the rightness of brightness and the importance of implants. Radio dated teeth samples discovered in Germany proved Central European farming communities existed for more than a millennia between 2800BC and 1300BC.
Related individuals were laid to rest with goods and belongings that appeared passed down through generations. Those from the household buried with nothing, suggested a lower class of ‘family’ member, not given ceremonial treatment.
What’s surprising is it reveals a lot about early human inheritance of goods and property.
Having had 100 skeletons to analyse, there have been no other studies of such large sample size and multiple analyses particularly for prehistoric groups. The finding that wealth was inherited rather than earned or achieved not only changes our understanding of ancient Europe, it offers new scope for continuing research on inequality.
That’s something to smile about for the millions of people on the wrong side of the globally historic income gap. Certainly the dental one needs to be closed.
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