Sex, power, youth and the quest for per­fect teeth

Edmonton Journal - - ARTS & LIFE - CYN­THIA CUSH­ING

Sexy-toothed vam­pires rule the pop-cul­ture world, and av­er­age Bobs and Bet­tys are sav­ing up for ex­treme smile makeovers. So, what are the pros and cons of the cur­rent quest for per­fect teeth?

Young chil­dren like to poke their fin­gers into ba­bies’ mouths. They want to know if there are any teeth in there. I don’t know if the chil­dren are in­ter­ested be­cause they’re not far re­moved from baby­hood them­selves and en­joy feel­ing su­pe­rior to gummy in­fants, or be­cause they are aware that ba­bies are tooth­less and they find this ap­par­ent ab­nor­mal­ity fas­ci­nat­ing.

Adults are in­ter­ested in teeth, too. Their in­ter­est lies mostly in siz­ing up age, health and wealth. Teeth are ex­cel­lent prox­ies for all three. But our ivory baubles are cu­riosi­ties in them­selves. They are hid­den and out in the open, not flesh but not skele­ton, a source of pride and a source of pain. They smile and they also bite.

It’s been eons since teeth served as handy weapons, Han­ni­bal Lecter and Mike Tyson not­with­stand­ing. In fact, it’s pos­si­ble that teeth will even­tu­ally evolve away. Our wis­dom teeth have al­ready been re­duced to ves­tiges of the mo­lars with which a cave­man gnawed bones. (I never had any wis-

... (W)hat hor­ri­fied me and hor­ri­fies me still was the feel­ing of my teeth

dis­in­te­grat­ing. I will do any­thing to keep my teeth

in my head.

dom teeth and I still have two baby teeth be­cause there were no adult teeth to re­place them. I don’t be­lieve this is par­tic­u­larly un­usual.)

The tooth­some threat lingers all the same. Peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of bit­ing some­thing other than food and we know it. In­deed, un­til our CroMagnon ten­den­cies are re­pressed around the age when we learn to use words to painful ef­fect, we are keen biters and, as we ma­ture, teeth re­main a gauge of where we stand in a world of cut­throat com­pe­ti­tion. We say that some­one is “los­ing his teeth” or “get­ting long in the tooth” when he’s no longer top dog.

Pop­u­lar cul­ture is awash with sexy teeth. For ex­am­ple, Lady Gaga’s song Teeth in­cludes these lyrics: Open your mouth boy Show me your teeth Show me what ya got Take a bite of my bad girl meat.

Jack Ni­chol­son’s toothy, wicked grin was con­sid­ered the height of sex­i­ness some years ago. Fic­tional vam­pires have al­ways seemed over­whelm­ingly de­sir­able, al­though to­day’s Bill, Eric and Ed­ward are far bet­ter look­ing and bet­ter dressed than Ni­chol­son or the vam­pires in old Drac­ula movies.

All the same, whether mod­elled by ag­ing movie stars or the un­dead, sharp white teeth pull in the girls. I sus­pect that it is the glint of dan­ger and the threat or prom­ise of ir­re­sistible sub­mis­sion.

Given this power/youth/sex nexus it isn’t sur­pris­ing that los­ing one’s teeth is one of the top 10 most com­mon night­mares.

I had it not long af­ter I mar­ried, quit my job, had a baby and moved to the sub­urbs. I dreamt that I was be­ing taken to my new home in the back of an am­bu­lance and dur­ing the ride I be­gan to feel my teeth loosen. I could shift them with my tongue and they be­gan to crum­ble and I spat the frag­ments out into my hand. When I woke up, the mean­ing of the dream seemed straight­for­ward.

Yes, I was los­ing my teeth in a metaphor­i­cal way. But what hor­ri­fied me and hor­ri­fies me still was the feel­ing of my teeth dis­in­te­grat­ing. I will do any­thing to keep my teeth in my head.

I’m not alone. Cana­di­ans spent an es­ti­mated $12.8 bil­lion on den­tal ser­vices in 2009, with about 45 per cent of that cost com­ing out of pocket. Al­most three-quar­ters of Cana­di­ans have been to the den­tist in the past 12 months. More than a third of us have had a root-canal pro­ce­dure (and three per cent had a den­tal im­plant in 2007). One in four of us claims to floss reg­u­larly, which is as de­voted to oral health as you can get.

Den­tal hy­giene and rou­tine care have im­proved so much in the last 40 years that the in­ci­dence of “eden­tulism” — tooth­less­ness — among Cana­di­ans has fallen from over 23 per cent in 1972 to only 6.4 per cent to­day, an era when the pop­u­la­tion has been ag­ing rapidly.

Be­yond just keep­ing the teeth we al­ready have, we want bet­ter teeth.

At least 14 per cent of all Cana­di­ans have bought over-the-counter whiten­ing prod­ucts, and al­most 20 per cent are re­ceiv­ing or have re­ceived or­thodon­tic treat­ment. Pro­ce­dures like bond­ing and the ap­pli­ca­tion of ve­neers are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar and the use of ex­pen­sive implants has al­lowed many eden­tu­lates to avoid den­tures and the unattrac­tive with­er­ing of the jaw that can oc­cur when teeth are gone.

You could even call the pur­suit of gleam­ing chop­pers a form of health mea­sure. Good teeth con­trib­ute to so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing. Maybe they also lead to good eat­ing and ex­er­cise habits — who’s to say they don’t?

Even so, an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple want not just bet­ter teeth but per­fect teeth. Per­fect teeth like those of Hollywood and re­al­ity-TV stars, the large, white, even, gap-less sort that are the achieve­ment of es­thetic den­tistry.

There isn’t a clear di­vide be­tween the den­tistry of es­thet­ics and med­i­cally nec­es­sary den­tistry, and most den­tists pro­vide both to some ex­tent. The Cana­dian Den­tal As­so­ci­a­tion’s def­i­ni­tion of oral health en­com­passes “phys­i­cal, mental and so­cial well-be­ing and the en­joy­ment of life’s pos­si­bil­i­ties by al­low­ing the in­di­vid­ual to speak, eat and so­cial­ize un­hin­dered by pain, dis­com­fort or em­bar­rass­ment.”

Reg­u­lar teeth clean­ing at the den­tist makes you look bet­ter but it also helps to pre­vent gum dis­ease. Gum dis­ease can lead to in­fec­tions and eat­ing dif­fi­cul­ties and even heart prob­lems. A gum graft (you don’t want to know) can pre­serve and pro­tect the roots of teeth. It will also make you look younger, al­though it’s hard to imag­ine that any­one would un­dergo the pro­ce­dure for purely es­thetic pur­poses.

As with a lot of things, the choice of den­tal ser­vices of­ten comes down to money — your money and your den­tist’s money. The great ma­jor­ity of den­tists op­er­ate busi­nesses as sole prac­ti­tion­ers and they have lots of over­head ex­penses: X-ray ma­chines, of­fices, hy­gien­ists, re­cep­tion­ists, as­sis­tants, lab fees, sup­plies, pay­ments for equip­ment loans and stu­dent loans. It costs hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to set up a new prac­tice and well over a mil­lion dol­lars to buy an ex­ist­ing one.

At the same time, all the brush­ing and floss­ing we’re do­ing has cut into the bread-and-but­ter busi­ness of fill­ing cav­i­ties and pulling teeth. That leaves the more in­ter­est­ing (from the den­tist’s point of view, if not the pa­tient’s) and chal­leng­ing pro­ce­dures to pay the bills. These in­clude ne­ces­si­ties such as root-canal op­er­a­tions and things that aren’t quite so nec­es­sary, al­though in­creas­ingly de­sir­able.

My own den­tist is con­ser­va­tive and rec­om­mends lit­tle ex­cept keep­ing up with the floss­ing. She oc­ca­sion­ally re­places one of my old fill­ings and says that my baby teeth might need to be re­placed with implants at some point in the fu­ture. For now, she says, the baby teeth are cute and she’ll keep an eye on them. This point of view is dif­fer­ent from that of my last den­tist. He rec­om­mended that my cute baby teeth (ev­ery­one has at least one good fea­ture) be re­placed forth­with and that I be fit­ted with braces to pre­vent an im­mi­nent den­tal cave-in that was go­ing to lead to a mal­formed bite, worn-out and cracked teeth and an in­abil­ity to chew solid food, all lead­ing to gen­eral mis­ery.

Busi­ness con­sul­tants tell den­tists to pur­sue a higher rate of “case ac­cep­tance” by hon­ing their ver­bal and re­la­tion­ship-build­ing skills and by buy­ing tools such as in­tra-oral cam­eras that let the pa­tients see what the den­tist sees in their mouths. They also urge den­tists to im­prove their skills in es­thetic restora­tion and to fill out their ser­vice menu with things like Bo­tox in­jec­tions, braces, laser tooth whiten­ing and amal­gam re­moval. The pa­tient, and some­times his in­surer, is left to de­cide the dif­fer­ence be­tween need and want. I pre­fer my den­tist to act like a doc­tor with a “first, do no harm” at­ti­tude. There are many oth­ers who want what they want and they want their den­tist to func­tion like an ex­treme makeover artist. While I may not agree with them, I am not cur­rently look­ing for a job or a part­ner or a role on a re­al­ity-TV show.

The odd thing is that to­day’s Hollywood-style teeth look like old-fash­ioned den­tures. Back when al­most ev­ery­one even­tu­ally ended up with false teeth, it was con­sid­ered hi­lar­i­ous when some­one was fit­ted with a set of pure white chop­pers, per­fect in ev­ery way ex­cept that they were so per­fect they were ob­vi­ously fake. To­day, North Amer­i­cans tend to be ac­cept­ing of ar­ti­fi­cial ap­pear­ances and per­haps even pre­fer them. A more nat­u­ral es­thetic pre­vails in Europe. This pref­er­ence was one fac­tor in the in­fa­mous war of words be­tween English nov­el­ist Martin Amis and the rest of the London lit­er­ary world in 1995 af­ter Amis had an ex­ten­sive den­tal ren­o­va­tion in the U.S. and was widely ridiculed for it.

My hus­band got his own set of ve­neers at about the same time as Amis. Like Amis, he is English and has English teeth, the prod­uct of post­war di­etary de­pri­va­tion, an ig­no­rance of flu­o­ride, the ut­ter ab­sence of orthodonti­cs, a well-in­dulged love of sweets and a float­ing sense that con­cern with per­sonal ap­pear­ance is lower class. As bad as my hus­band’s teeth were, they looked worse when he chipped a front in­cisor and the tooth dark­ened. I as­sumed he would have it taken care of.

“Non­sense!” he said. “No one’s go­ing to no­tice. You don’t ex­pect me to get a fake tooth, do you?”

Well, yes, I did. If I had no ca­reer, no in­come and no sta­tus and was de­vot­ing my days to cook­ing and clean­ing and push­ing a stroller, then my part­ner, the one who was con­nected to the out­side world, had to look as if he had some bite or else we were go­ing to end up as food for the wolves. Of course, I didn’t tell him any of this be­cause I didn’t think it, I felt it, a fa­mil­iar mix of panic and dis­tress. It was the night­mare by day.

Fi­nally, dur­ing din­ner one night, our daugh­ter climbed down from her chair and tod­dled over to him. She stuck her fin­gers into his mouth. “You have yucky teeth, Daddy.” He said noth­ing. I kept quiet. A few weeks later he had a set of ve­neers. The colour was matched to the rest of his English teeth, but he still looked sexy in a Martin-Amis, post-Amer­i­can-den­tal-work kind of way, which has been OK since I am a lit­tle long in the tooth for vam­pires.


White teeth seem to be for­ever in de­mand, with at least 14 per cent of all Cana­di­ans hav­ing bought over-the counter whiten­ing prod­ucts.


Ac­tor Jack Ni­chol­son: To­day’s Hollywood-style teeth look like old fash­ioned den­tures.

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