The Stigma Against Bad Teeth And Its Socioeconomic Unfairness — Why Our "Pearly Whites" Obsession Needs To Go

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 29: (U.S. TABS OUT) Singer Jessica Simpson appears on stage during MTV's Total Request Live at the MTV Times Square Studios November 29, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
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During the Oscars, did you notice that celebrities all sported perfect pearly whites? Here's one reason why: People with bad teeth don't get to be famous. More importantly, movie stars can afford to spend thousands of dollars on top-notch dental care. For the most part they grew up with that money, which is key. But if you were raised in American poverty, your nutrition and access to healthcare were probably inadequate. Sarah Smarsh wrote an excellent essay on this topic, describing "the shame of poor teeth in a rich world":

"My family's distress over our teeth — what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake — reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: [The] underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition. It's a familiar trick ... like, say, underfunding public education and then criticising the institution for struggling. Often, bad teeth are blamed solely on the habits and choices of their owners, and for the poor therein lies an undue shaming."

If you have bad teeth, whether merely discolored or full-on rotting, it will be harder to get a job, which reinforces the cycle of no money > no dental care > no money > no dental care, etc. As reported by the New Yorker, "Those struggling to get ahead in the job market quickly find that the unsightliness of bad teeth, and the self-consciousness that results, can become a major barrier. If your teeth are bad, you're not going to get a job as a receptionist, say, or a cashier. You're going to be put in the back somewhere, far from the public eye." The New York Times presents a similarly grim view. Luckily, impoverished people aren't totally without recourse when it comes to taking care of their teeth.

(Unfortunately, the solution is not to become a tiger and embrace your scary yellow grin.)

Dental schools often offer discounted treatment. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research explains, "Dental schools can be a good source of quality, reduced-cost dental treatment. Most of these teaching facilities have clinics that allow dental students to gain experience treating patients while providing care at a reduced cost. Experienced, licensed dentists closely supervise the students." The NIDCR also provides resources for starting your search for a dental school, if that's a route you're considering.

The depressing, practical option is to save up for ages and sacrifice other areas of your life. However, if you're quite poor, "sacrifice other areas of your life" is a laughable suggestion. Dental visits cost hundreds of dollars, not to mention thousands for reconstructive surgeries.

Another option, although not one fully substantiated by medical science, is oil pulling. What's this woo-woo nonsense? Wellness blog Mama Natural has a tutorial, but basically it's just gargling raw coconut oil, squishing it around in your mouth for five minutes, and then spitting it out. (Not into the sink. Oil will clog up your drain!) Oil pulling hasn't been proven to work by a clinical trial, although studies exist, but people seem to love it, many claiming that it saved their teeth. Jezebel writer Tracy Moore is tentatively in favor of the health craze. The American Dental Association forswears oil pulling, as does myth-busting website Snopes, but WebMD advocates it. So... your mileage may vary.

This isn't all, or even mostly, an aesthetic concern. Finding "bad teeth" ugly is a cultural thing, anyway; in Japan crooked teeth are considered "endearing." (But probably not rotten teeth.) The important thing is the mouth-body connection, the correlation between good oral health and good holistic health... which also means a correlation between bad oral health and bad holistic health. Gum disease is an indicator of serious chronic illnesses, according to CNCA Health. The Mayo Clinic asserts:

"Like many areas of the body, your mouth is teeming with bacteria — most of them harmless. Normally the body's natural defenses and good oral health care, such as daily brushing and flossing, can keep these bacteria under control. However, without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease. ... Studies also suggest that oral bacteria and the inflammation associated with periodontitis — a severe form of gum disease — might play a role in some diseases. In addition, certain diseases, such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, can lower the body's resistance to infection, making oral health problems more severe."

My short review of American dental health problems may seem like an utter downer, but there are a couple things you should take away from it: People with bad teeth are not (necessarily) to blame for their oral situation. Don't judge them. (I mean, don't judge anyone, but what is this, a damn utopia?) Even if you have very little money, you can do things to work on your oral health. You are empowered to take care of your teeth. Obviously, brush and floss. If you must, it's worth going into debt to preserve your health. (Um, I'm not a lawyer. Just so you know.) Non-lawyer-dom aside, your health and your teeth cannot be replaced, whereas money can. Screw this society that says you have to sacrifice your well-being to be a good cog in the capitalist machine. Screw the system that harms you and then blames you for bleeding. Do everything you can to survive.

Images: Flickr/Meal Makeover Moms; Getty

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