Friday, December 29, 2017

Three Posts About Teeth

One of the first personal details I understood about my paternal grandmother was that she had no teeth. Her lips curved softly inward toward each other. She cut the kernels off her sweet corn and ate meat by gumming it to death, as my mother put it.

I was told grandma'd had her teeth all pulled by her mid-20s, and that they needed to go because they were “soft.” Or that’s how my child brain understood what I was told, anyway. Now I assume it was a combination of tooth decay and lack of gum care that led to pain, and so required the only cheap alternative at the time: extraction.

With that in mind, I recently noted two new articles about teeth, and returned to one I shared in an earlier post without comment.

Braces, pointless and essential, by Michael Thomsen for the Atlantic, looks at how orthodontia—expensive, painful, and often medically unnecessary—became so popular. Thomsen explores some of the history of dentistry and orthodontia, the costs of treatment, and his own story.

It’s not that your teeth are too big: your jaw is too small, by dental anthropologist Peter Ungar writing for Aeon, answers Thomsen's question of why our teeth don't fit into our mouths. The jawbone, it turns out, grows differently depending on what you eat as a child, and softer foods make for a shorter jaw:

There’s plenty of evidence for this. The dental anthropologist Robert Corruccini at Southern Illinois University has seen the effects by comparing urban dwellers and rural peoples in and around the city of Chandigarh in north India – soft breads and mashed lentils on the one hand, coarse millet and tough vegetables on the other. He has also seen it from one generation to the next in the Pima peoples of Arizona, following the opening of a commercial food-processing facility on the reservation. Diet makes a huge difference.
Our too-small jaws are also implicated in sleep apnea, he says. Fascinating stuff!

Poor teeth, by Sarah Smarsh, also for Aeon, looks at the class implications of "bad" teeth in the U.S. "If you have a mouthful of teeth shaped by a childhood in poverty, don’t go knocking on the door of American privilege," as the article's subtitle says. She provides a fine dialog with W.E.B. DuBois, along with the story of teeth in her poor white Kansas family, including her own.

The character Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett from Orange Is the New Black, as played by actress Taryn Manning with prosthetic teeth. Smarsh uses Pennsatucky as a familiar-to-many cultural symbol of bad teeth.

Smarsh's article reminds me of a 2013 viral post by Linda Tirado, called This is why poor people's decisions make perfect sense, which included a fact about teeth and the cycle of poverty I'd never recognized:
We don’t apply for jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a super legal secretary, but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm”.... I am good enough to cook the food, hidden away in the kitchen, but my boss won’t make me a server because I don’t “fit the corporate image.” I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on B12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep.
All of that is to say: teeth matter, and the fact that their care is not considered part of our health (when it comes to paying for it) is one of the many messed up things in this country.

No comments: