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Teeth are visible when we speak, sing, smile. That doesn’t mean everyone gets a pass to comment on them.

A typical close-mouthed smile from me.
A typical close-mouthed smile from me.

I made a point of blogging about how awful fat shaming is, and how little fatness corresponds to morality, beauty, and health. Plus I don’t think we should body-shame politicians. And I’ve even blogged about my experiences being shamed in hot yoga classes for the amount I was sweating/smelling. So it’s probably no surprise that I, as a body scholar, am like, “Hey, stop equating arbitrary physical traits with judgments of value.”

And yet.

It didn’t occur to me that this might be a huge deal until I went through a few months where people repeatedly asked what was wrong with my teeth. Yes, my coffee consumption had increased – but did it make THAT much of a difference?

It was humiliating, to say the least.

“What happened to your teeth?”

“Did your stage makeup get on your teeth?”

“You’re doing more media appearances for your teaching and sex ed work – you should really take better care of your teeth.”

“Your teeth have gotten worse since the last time I saw you.”

“When’s the last time you saw a dentist?”

In case it wasn’t incredibly obvious, commenting on someone’s teeth is just as rude as commenting on their weight, if not more so. It’s in a similar category of rudeness because bodies do weird things, and if someone’s body appears to be in a state of disrepair, or a state that doesn’t match the cultural ideal, that’s not necessarily a reflection on a person’s good or bad habits, or their intentions at all. It’s just not.

Further, both weight and teeth are linked to social class. As this Bitch Media article, What Pennsatucky’s Teeth Tell Us About Class in America, asserts:

Though teeth are part of our bodies, health care programs treat them as an afterthought. Dental health is not covered by standard health insurance and Medicare has no dental benefits, so about half of Americans don’t have dental insurance. In recent years, the cost of dental care has been increasing faster than the cost of other medical care. There’s also an urban/rural divide on access to dentists: 45 million Americans live in communities where there is a serious lack of dentists.

I was fortunate in growing up with regular visits to the dentist. I never needed braces, though many of my classmates did. As an adult, I’ve had mostly-regular dental care (when I’m on top of my adulting, I’m getting twice-yearly cleanings; when I’m less so, it drops down to once a year). So, coming from an intersectional perspective, I’m well aware that my relative class privilege, and my location in urban spaces, influenced my ability to access quality dental care.

I mostly don’t care how my teeth look, so long as they’re functioning (which is itself a function of privilege: I can rely on other visual markers to convey that I’m educated, good at my job, trustworthy, and so on). But the constant comments began to wear me down. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Mostly I try to tune out the conditioning about what an ideal body looks like – and trust me, growing up in Hollywood’s shadow that is one tough task – so I never really minded my teeth not being perfectly white or straight, but this new stream of commentary began to bother me.

Additionally, as a performer and teacher, I appear in front of other people a lot. Not everyone is so enlightened as to acknowledge that physical traits are not indicators of moral worth. I began smiling more with my mouth closed. I covered my mouth with my hands when I could. However, I can’t lecture to my students like that. And in my dance performances, there are undoubtedly times when a full smile is most appropriate.

So, let’s just all agree not to comment on other people’s teeth, unless we’re in a professional dental context. It’s rude, it’s unnecessary, and it’s not telling the person anything they haven’t noticed themselves. If anything, it’s another form of shaming or stigmatizing, disguised as polite concern. Telling someone they have something stuck in their teeth is sometimes acceptable, but that’s a different thing, a temporary intrusion rather than a permanent indication of unworthiness.

Oh, and my teeth? Are much cleaner now. Turns out my dentist had prescribed a special medicated mouthwash for nascent gum disease, which I’d taken and then forgotten about. One of the side effects was staining. I’m still a bit too fond of coffee and red wine to ever have pristine teeth, and I’m okay with that – especially if the rest of the world gets on board with the idea of not shaming folks for things that are largely outside their control.

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...