Copyright Linda Marcas 2003 - All Rights Reserved
There's an old saying, "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," that is a
caution against being overly picky and critical about any gift that someone
might choose to give you, but, aside from farmers and horse fanciers,
probably few folks actually understand why a horse's mouth has anything to
do with the gracious acceptance of a gift. It's simple: you can tell how old a
horse is, roughly, by looking at its teeth and seeing how worn down they are.
Looking a gift horse in the mouth is a lot like asking how much a present is
worth, in cash.
Human teeth can also be indicators of age, because teeth, even if well
cared for, naturally yellow and darken as we get older. Drinking coffee or
tea, or smoking or chewing tobacco, hastens this natural process. Some
medications discolor teeth, and I've heard that pregnancy can weaken them,
too, if an expectant mother doesn't get enough calcium in her diet. Gums
recede, and we become "long in the tooth." Teeth also shift position as we
age, just from chewing if not from accidents or other damage. And, just as
with horses, our teeth wear down from sheer use.
A few weeks ago, one of my teeth lost a fight with a breadstick; an old
filling cracked and broke, leaving a hole that wasn't painful at the moment,
but that I knew from past sad experience, could soon become excruciating if
not repaired as soon as possible. I hadn't been to the dentist in several years
(insert any list of reasons and excuses here) and was afraid of what they
might find as far as other damage, cavities, gum disease, whatever, but I got
lucky; they cleaned my teeth, repaired the broken filling, replaced another
old filling that was getting ready to fail, and told me everything else was
It surprised me, though, that even though I'd explained that hubby was
laid off and we'd soon be having to pay more for health insurance, the first
thing the technician asked me, before she'd so much as looked at my broken
tooth, was, "have you ever thought about having your teeth whitened?"
That's a "cosmetic" procedure, not covered by our insurance; I was worrying
about the co-pay for unavoidable repairs, and she was mentioning $400
worth of frills! The same thing happened to hubby a few weeks later; the
dentist sent him home with a glossy brochure about bleaching that, despite
amazing before-and-after photos, contains all sorts of "results may vary"
Cosmetic dentistry must be a great money-maker, if you judge by the
number of ads for whitening and straightening and porcelain veneers. Sure,
most of us would like to look our best, but who decides exactly what "best"
consists of? Is it enough to have healthy teeth that are reasonably straight
and fairly white, or should we all aspire to having "perfect" teeth,
Hollywood teeth, those teeth that virtually everyone on television seems to
I've been paying attention to teeth on TV lately, and they are pretty
frightening. Everyone's teeth are exactly the same! Perfectly straight,
blindingly white, stretching from one side of their mouth to the other in an
unbroken horizontal line. Almost no one has larger incisors than anyone
else, or pointier canines, or any gaps, unevenness, or chips. Okay, maybe
David Letterman has kept his "trademark" space between his two front teeth,
but why is the gap between the Pine-Sol lady's teeth slowly vanishing? Her
teeth were fine, she looked like an "ordinary person," which is probably why
they chose her for the commercial in the first place, but I suspect her gap is
being slowly closed in with a series of caps.
With all the conspicuous "diversity" on TV these days, why is there
this unnatural conformity of dentition? Race, religion, and sexual
orientation are all up for grabs, come one, come all, but teeth have to be
completely uniform? Take a close look at the ad for Zelnorm, a prescription
drug for intestinal problems in which women's bare midriffs serve as
billboards, and you can spot more variations among their navels than among
their smiles. It's creepy, so much so that sometimes I watch Judge Judy, just
so I can see people with ordinary teeth on TV.
Talk show "make-over" episodes used to content themselves with a
quick change to someone's wardrobe, hairstyle, or make-up, but, more and
more often, they are now "fixing" the subject's teeth, as well. Don't we
already have enough problems and insecurities, without being taught that the
slightest deviation of our dentures is a dastardly flaw? I'm not saying that
we should deny orthodontic braces to snaggle-toothed teenagers, but will
little Susie's life really be ruined if one of her bottom lateral incisors is a tad
tilted? How will forensics experts ever catch a criminal by analyzing the
bite pattern in the apple core he left behind, if everyone has identical, perfect
A few years ago, a friend brought a set of those gag "Bubba Teeth" to
a party, the stained, crooked, protuberant kind that fit over your own pearly
whites and make you look like Quasimodo on a bad day. Every time I look
at photos from that night, I have to remind myself that it was just a joke,
because the teeth altered his appearance so drastically. How much does a
perfect smile influence our opinions of other people's intelligence, morality,
and socio-economic status? Do we trust people with visibly decayed teeth,
or even people with merely crooked ones? I'll have to start watching the
teeth on villains in movies and TV shows; of course, the hero never has bad
teeth (with the exception of Austin Powers, but, did you notice, his teeth got
"fixed"?), but are villains still permitted a crooked grin, or has the drive for
dental perfection ruled that out? Conversely, do the make-up artists
deliberately derange an actor's fancy fangs, to indicate that he's the bad guy?
The prevalence of perfect Hollywood teeth in the media is probably
influencing what we consciously or unconsciously believe about ourselves
and the people we meet in real life; just take all the analysis about fat,
anorexia, and dieting, and apply the same process to teeth.
Yes, I'd like my teeth to be whiter, but I'm really quite content with
the fact that they're healthy and don't give me trouble. Millions of people
don't have dental insurance coverage to help them with the cost of necessary
maintenance and repairs, much less the cost of purely optional cosmetic
procedures; designer teeth, just like designer clothes, shouldn't be an
indication to the rest of the world of whether or not one is a good person.
I'm afraid we're headed in that direction, particularly if we don't watch where
we're going. Meanwhile, to slow the journey, the next time a dental
professional tries to sell you some Hollywood teeth, just say, "bite me!"
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