Sex, power, youth and the quest for perfect teeth
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.