Let’s Talk About Teeth

Teeth are the weapons of the dead. Colson Whitehead, in Zone One, creates a world where teeth are the single most feared object. Incisors, canines, and molars are weapons capable of killing a person and also infecting people to become another member of the vast zombie army. The seriousness and danger of teeth can be felt by Whitehead’s comparison to guns, “a gun to his temple or teeth to his jugular.” Teeth are to be feared as a tool that functions as a weapon against the living. In the apocalyptic world, teeth hold an obvious and significant role in society. Whitehead explains the primary objective of survivors living in Zone One, the “first priority was keeping their limbs and associated parts attached to their bodies free of teeth.” The importance of teeth in this society is established very early on in the novel.

However, Whitehead also subtly indicates that teeth are not only a functional tool but may have additional significance. After discussing the importance of dental health and reading Jack McKeown’s blog post, I realized that teeth are seen as a proficient indicator of socioeconomic status. Whitehead questions the role of teeth in society through Mark Spitz wondering, “Did it work the hairdo, the bleached teeth, the calculated injections, did it transform the country rube into the cosmopolitan?” Society places substantial weight on the condition and appearance of teeth. Unfortunately in most cases, the quality of teeth is dependent on a person’s socioeconomic status and access to dental care. Teeth are another aspect of society that qualify people based upon socially constructed principles rather than substantive content.

White, straight teeth are a trait that many people admire and wish to obtain. Teeth are a variable trait of all human beings and are commonly altered for physical appearance reasons alone. According to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, 86% percent of dental patients indicated that a major reason  for receiving treatment was to “improve physical attractiveness and self-esteem.” Less than half (46%) of the respondents listed “for restorative or oral health reasons” as a major reason for seeking dental treatment. Those with financial access to dental procedures see the industry as a tool to improve their overall appearance in accordance with societal values placed on white and straight teeth. While many individuals seek treatment for cosmetic reasons there are patients who require treatment in order to improve their oral health.

According to the FDI World Dental Federation, oral disease affects 3.9 billion people worldwide and untreated tooth decay occurs in nearly half of the world’s population. They also report that 110 billion dollars are spent annually treating oral conditions, and worldwide more is spent on oral healthcare than in the treatment of cancer or respiratory diseases. The FDI also claims that oral disease can be extremely damaging when untreated, “ Oral disease is associated with significant pain and anxiety, as well as disfigurement, acute and chronic infections, eating and sleep disruption, and can result in an impaired quality of life.” The treatment of oral conditions is an extremely expensive endeavor and there are many Americans that lack the financial means to receive necessary treatment.

The Washington Post Article, authored by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, titled “The Painful Truth About Teeth”, brings light to the separation in dental care due to socioeconomic status. Jordan and Sullivan report that more than a third of American adults have no dental coverage. Although there are proven detrimental overall health implications that come with oral disease, Medicare, “which covers 55 million seniors and disabled people, does not cover dental problems.” Many of these people cannot afford supplemental dental insurances and are forced to go without. Jordan and Sullivan also explain that “if you are poor enough and live in certain states you can get coverage through Medicaid.” However, only 38% of dentists accept Medicaid and it only covers an average of 37% of the bill, leaving even those with additional government aid unable to receive imperative dental treatment. American people are desperate for affordable medical care. The article also describes a free medical clinic in Maryland where 1,165 patients waited to receive dental treatment of serious oral conditions. Many lower-class Americans are not receiving the support that they require in order to receive necessary treatment while many Americans use insurance to help pay for cosmetic treatments.  

There is a serious separation in dental treatment, between socioeconomic classes, that needs to be addressed. I believe that Colson Whitehead is very creative by placing a heavy reliance on teeth in Zone One and hinting at the disparity in dental coverage. Zone One is a novel that tears down societal constructs and coerces readers to question what is truly important. Whitehead describes the teeth of skels as “black”, “rotten” and “broken” and hints at the idealized appearance through the American Phoenix mascot as “square and white.” When the skels finally overrun Zone One and prevail over a camp of the American Phoneix, black teeth overcome white teeth. I believe that Whitehead is providing the commentary that the superior white teeth provide no actual benefit and are simply a social construct. He forces the readers to question whether or not society should be using dental care as a socioeconomic indicator rather than necessary universal medical treatment.

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