Thursday, April 29, 2010

A different value: Teeth

I'm going to spend some time in a periodontist's chair tomorrow, so tonight I'm thinking about teeth.

I look around at America today and I see that teeth are treated as a big deal. Especially white teeth. There are lots of smiles that have seen extensive orthodontics - including mine! Lots which have been whitened (not including mine). Teeth are a whole business which advertises at us constantly. The best brush, the best toothpaste, the best whitener, etc. etc. We are told to brush twice daily, floss daily, see the dentist every six months for a cleaning and checkup.

Not everyone thinks about teeth this way.

I remember when I was studying early hominids, I was fascinated to learn that up to a certain time period, cavities (they were referred to as caries in this context) didn't exist. Skulls dated after the beginning of that period are often found to have rotting teeth; skulls from the earlier period don't. Imagine it!

When I went to Japan, I was warned not to try to go to the dentist. One of my friends said memorably, "If you have a cavity, wait a year." What I discovered when I was there was an entirely different attitude toward dentistry. I saw little or no orthodontics. I saw lots and lots of people with missing teeth, partly missing teeth (ack!), very crooked teeth, etc. I tried to think about it in comparison with the attitude toward teeth in ancient Japan, where a young woman's teeth were seen as showy and after marriage women would blacken their teeth. In any case, one of my host moms went to see the dentist for tooth pain and reported when she came back that she'd been told if it continued, she could have the tooth pulled out. I shuddered.

I admit this was quite a stressor on me, and on my attempts to keep an open mind. It's interesting how much harder it is to be culturally sensitive when the effects of an alternate belief system may be directly applied to a part of one's body. Fortunately, I didn't encounter tooth trouble while I was there.

After I returned from Japan, I met a young woman who had moved to the US from Japan, and I learned something else. She preferred the Japanese way, and complained that she was always having to go to the dentist here, and that every time she went they seemed to find something wrong, so she wondered why she kept going at all. This surprised me a lot, but on one level it does make sense. It simply grows out of a very different way of thinking about the problem.

I think there are lots of possible attitudes to have about one's teeth, ranging from absolute not caring to hyperattentiveness to their health and appearance. In our own world you can find a large degree of variation, both in attitudes and in the base conditions that influence oral health. Different environmental factors like the available food and drink can have a huge influence on the amount of care that teeth need (I think immediately of Dances With Wolves). Not caring for one's teeth can't really be considered neglect if the natural foods you eat don't cause you to have trouble with them. It's only neglect if it results in bad oral health. The amount of care we Americans need to take of our teeth certainly has a lot to do with the amount of sugary food we eat. And of course in our own country oral health brings along with it a good number of related issues, like fluoridation of water, or heart disease's link to periodontal disease, or school registration for Kindergarteners.

People often neglect the question of teeth in their worldbuilding. It's simpler to create a fantasy world where you don't have to worry about tooth care - and not entirely implausible, in fact, if you think about it from the early hominids' point of view. It's certainly nicer not to have to worry about whether your potential love interest's mouth is a complete nightmare. Still, I always appreciate when some little attention is paid to such things, even so far as to give a small nod to why people's teeth look or feel the way they do.

It's something to think about.


  1. Loved this. :) I always appreciate when an author pays attention to seemingly small details like this, and I strive to do so in my stories as well. Thanks for the insight into another culture's view.

  2. Glad you liked it, Lydia. I thought when I started writing that it would be a short post, but it was amazing all the memories and emotions that came up.

  3. This was a very interesting post. I had no idea the Japanese looked at teeth like that. I'm not sure I'll ever find occasion to discuss dental health in a story, but if I do, I'll be prepared. :)

  4. I wish I could afford the dental care needed to give me a dazzling smile with even teeth. My teeth aren't anywhere near as bad as those ones you described, but I'm still sensitive to how they look. US media really stresses over the straight and white. Even the nerdy/gawky/dorky women and girls in movies still nearly all have perfect teeth even before getting their makeovers. *sigh*

    I hadn't thought about adding anything about teeth in my stories. But for the most part that is the sort of detail that I'd add once past the first draft. I'm terrible with my descriptions.

  5. You've done it again, Juliette. I just got back from a dental check-up today and have teeth on the brain ;) This time, though, it's the personal demotivation I always get to look forward to when going to the dentist. I guess if your parents aren't disappointed in you, someone has to act like you never measure up!

    I'd be curious to know when that division point comes in with early hominid skulls. How far back are we looking?

    I do think teeth (and other potential sources of odor) when I'm writing, but I admit I shirk away from calling too much attention to it, at least I'm not yet at the point where I'm willing to give my leading man a mouthful of gawdawful teeth. I think there's an element of cultural norms to it as well though, if teeth of a certain standard (even if it's well below ours) are the norm, a character in that culture probably won't note it, although other hints may be there. I never saw mention of teeth in the Ben Jonson plays I studied, but there'd be mentions of the various things people chewed to make their breath pleasant. Now if, according to that standard, someone had either truly heinous teeth or unusually gorgeous teeth, then I think a character would be inclined to remark on it.

  6. Hayley, here's a link that will give you some information about dental caries in early hominids.

    Most increases in cavities are associated with changes in diet, apparently.

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