Teeth as a Marker of Difference

In today’s world of superficiality and beauty standards, people are always noticing the physical attributes of each other. Whether or not they make a comment about it, is a personal choice. Teeth have become a key marker of beauty, but also of distinguishing socioeconomic status.

A Washington Post article, “The Painful Truth About Teeth,” by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan addresses the concerns for dental health among low-income Americans. The authors are effective in demonstrating the severity of this issue by focusing on real-life examples to correspond with grim statistics on the state of dental health in a 21st century nation. The article examines Dee Matello, a working-class individual from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, “the poorest part of one of the country’s richest state” according to the authors. Jordan and Sullivan point out that nearly $1 billion is spent by a few Americans for luxury cosmetic dentistry while 1 in 5 Americans older than 65 don’t have “a single real tooth left.” People like Dee and her husband have a steady job yet lack the dental insurance or cash to spend on maintaining a perfect set of teeth.

The issue of dental health causes great suffering for Americans, who may have to prioritize other financial decisions over their teeth. Professionals within the field are aware of these changes and its domino effect on other aspects of their patient’s health. According to Dr. Patricia Higgins, rural areas (such as Maryland’s Eastern Shore) have a noticeably higher level of dental health problems. She attributes our nation’s reliance on prescription drugs as a cause for issues such as dry mouth and cavities. The director of the Chesapeake Health Care dental dept., George Acs also believes that medications may have caused the side-effect of minimized dental health. The article states that more than 2 million emergency room patients in 2016 were treated for oral pain and infections. Ac’s primary concern is that ER doctors are not properly equipped to treat certain dental issues. Instead, they often prescribe antibiotics and opioids. For lower-income groups, the flaws within the health system have much greater ramifications than someone with greater access to medical treatment. Dee Matello claims that teeth “are the telltale, visible signs of wealth.” This may suggest that not having proper dental care may lead to further stigmatization of lower-income individuals.

Teeth have long been considered a part of human identity. It can give an indication of our oral health while also a marker of socioeconomic status. When it comes to race, teeth seem to be yet another way to objectify the human body to suppose inferiority. Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington gives many examples of how teeth have been used to claim the racial inferiority of blacks. Besides the noticing of skin color, teeth were another way in which black people were identified and othered.

Dr. Louis Agassiz was a Swiss naturalist who moved to America in 1846, becoming a professor of biology at Harvard and a well-known scientist. In his encounters with blacks in Philadelphia, Agassiz expressed his revulsion in a letter to his mother. He writes: “In seeing their black faces with thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their heads, their bent knees, their elongate heads, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of their palms, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay away…God preserve us from such a contact!” (Washington, 91) Dr. Agassiz seems to portray black people as an almost alien species by the horror-like depiction he provides. The word “grimacing” is intentionally paired with “teeth,” which reminds me of an animal with menacing teeth or even the zombie tropes found in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, teeth are used in representing black people in a negative manner.

Teeth are more than just a representation of identity; they’ve been used in experimentation processes as well. In 1945, scientists sought to discover the effect of radioactive substances on patients. Ebb Cade was one individual whose living body was used by scientists and physicians for the testing of plutonium. This man-made element was labeled by the director of the Manhattan Project’s Medical Section “as the most dangerous chemical known.” (Washington, 217) In order to measure plutonium levels, Cade’s doctors pulled fifteen of his teeth and extracted bone chips. Washington emphasizes that Ebb Cade was one of many involuntary test subjects for radiation, participants who were often African Americans. The history of teeth is not exactly clean pearly-whites, and the state of dental health today indicated a society that uses teeth to mark differences among us.

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