Strangers to Our Teeth: What We Judge When We Judge “Bad Teeth”
My bad teeth are slowly shrinking my world. They are not of my body; they haunt my body.
Oldboy, Marathon Man, American Horror Story, The Blair Witch Project,
Camanchaca,The Story of My Teeth, Threats.Homesick for Another World,
For now, I live in a dental limbo. I take a lot of ibuprofen. I dislike eating in public, or being seen in public in general. I doubt I could be hired for a public-facing job. And I admit, my attitude is terrible. My judgment of others’ judgment has changed me on a foundational level. I steer clear of people. I avoid seeing old acquaintances or colleagues. Sometimes I even avoid my family, who, when I was young, tried to set me up for a bright dental future. I had the privilege of braces and headgear; I had regular checkups.
Perhaps there is something to this teeth-as-estrangement thing in fiction: My teeth are slowly shrinking my world. They keep me prisoner, acting on me in ways I can’t control.
I do not want to go to the university in Baltimore. The easy excuse is that I can’t afford it. But even if I had the money, I’m unsure that I would go. I do not want to again be made promises and endure nightmarish procedures only to have them fail. I am tired of being a medical mystery for the financial gain of others. I am afraid.
Is there a way to make our teeth part of our bodies? We could be less squeamish, less judgmental about them. But I know I can’t make the dental and everything-else medical communities become a more unified front. I can’t make teeth any less odd or scary. I can’t change the judgment of others.
But I can ask them to examine it. In 2011, I was at a Halloween party when one of the guests, Justin, told a story about how his coworker popped out his partial denture every day at lunch and laid it on a napkin in plain sight. The story was meant to be funny and weird and maybe a little mean, banking on the horror of removing a tooth like one removes a ring. Everyone laughed. I went tingly and hot with shame. They were laughing at me, but did not realize it.
At that time, I was wearing a temporary dental prosthetic that disguised my four missing front teeth, but they assumed I was like them—one of the naturally blessed, in on the joke. I had been drinking a little. When I get tipsy sometimes I feel brave and wicked, a self I wish would visit more often. As I listened to their laughter, my shame subsided, and rage set in. What, exactly, was so funny about Justin’s story? Was the coworker really that odd, taking a partial out to eat his lunch, doing what he needed to do to live his life? Did he deserve humiliation because his missing teeth proved, to them, that deviant character flaws burbled just beneath the surface? Or was his real sin not hiding the evidence of his missing teeth, not obeying the instinct to make others comfortable?
I watched the crowd of strangers giggle along with Justin’s story as they chomped away on off-brand Triscuits. “You mean his teeth were just laying there?” one girl said, appalled. A garden of profanities bloomed within me.
They believed they would outsmart their fallible human bodies, I realized. They think there are rules to this, rules that are fair. Be a decent person in everyday life who takes care of things, and your teeth will remain above ridicule. Be a good person, and you will not be punished by the bizarre. I looked around and thought: They have been lucky. And they assume it will always be so.
I took a breath and said, “You know, I have tooth problems.” I felt strengthened by the phantom coworker, laying out his teeth without shame. Justin gazed at me like I was an oncoming train. “I had four of my lower teeth pulled a month ago and have to wear a partial-type thingy to disguise the gap. And I take it out to eat. It’s just something that happens.”
Everyone had quieted. I felt a little foolish, a little surprised at myself. But mostly, I was pleased. I had acknowledged the fact of my teeth, and not as a joke, and not in a shy, roundabout way. I had spoken of them like they belonged to my body. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to say out loud at a party. But I had no regrets.