Sunday, August 6, 2017
Given my long-time fascination with Old Hollywood and my more recent fixation on dentistry and its history and context, I knew buying this book was a certainty. I first heard about Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America on NPR, and I stalked it for a while on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, trying to see if it might go on sale or if I could find a used copy. But my wonderful godmother sent me a B&N gift card for my birthday, and weekends in August are Educator Discount days, so I bought it, feeling satisfied that I got the best price possible on a new hardcover book.
The book begins with a briefing on the state of dental care standards in our country; why so many people must go without even the most basic dental care and opens up the discussion of the premium we place on not just oral health, but the appearance of our teeth and our quest for dental perfection. It's not enough for us to have healthy teeth- they have be radiantly white and they have to be straight and there cannot be any spaces or overlapping or overbite or underbite or any other detractors.
Otto writes that dentistry and photography/film have a shared history and a symbiotic relationship. It's no coincidence that the first dental school opened in 1840, the same year that the camera was patented. The person who received the patent was Alexander S. Wolcott, an inventor. He was also a dentist.
Since then, we have used our photographed images to judge the state of our smiles. And we put a lot of time and effort into achieving the perfect smile because we want to look good in pictures. With the advent of Talkies in the late 1920's, there was much more emphasis on actors voices, and their mouths in general. In order to execute decent sound quality, the actors wore microphones, and had to speak clearly into them. It's difficult to speak clearly if you're missing teeth. And naturally, the films would be doing more close-ups on the actors' faces since they're speaking, and so their mouths not only had to produce good dialogue, they had to look good too.
Dentistry's role in the Hollywood machine is easily seen. For example, one of my all-time favorites was Shirley Temple. She became an icon at the tender age of five, and continued to make movies through her childhood and adolescence. And yet, she never lost her baby teeth. . .
Well, of course she did. She lost her baby teeth like any other kid. But the public never noticed, because every time she lost a tooth, the dentist would mold some veneers to cover up the space. Since she was losing teeth for years, she went through lots of sets of them.
Here's a rare photo that shows Shirley Temple's natural smile when she was eight years old:
That picture is from the files of Dr. Charles Pincus, the dentist of the stars. Pincus is known as the originator of the Hollywood smile, but of course he was not the only contributor to this golden standard smile. Many stars used veneers and dentures to give themselves the smiles that Nature had not.
I think anyone who claims to be a Judy Garland fan knows that she started out her career as homely little girl- Louis B. Mayer used to call her his "little hunchback." Part of her metamorphosis into a starlet involved fixing her smile, with sparkling white veneers, She used to keep them in a little box shaped like a piano when she wasn't wearing them. Photos taken near the end of her life, when the drugs and alcohol were showing their damage and when she didn't have much money, show her natural teeth:
While some stars used veneers to cover up dental imperfections, some used dentures because they didn't have any teeth. Clark Gable, the King of Hollywood, suffered an infection in his gums when he was a young man. His teeth rotted beyond repair, and he had full dentures by the time he was 32 years old.
I wish that Otto's book focused more on this time period; it's a sound thesis and she introduces it like it's going to be the focus, but the majority of the text afterwards discusses the shortcomings of health insurance, and how dental health is not included despite the fact that a person's oral health is directly related to his/her overall physical state.
She also discusses dental care in the contexts of geographic location (rural areas tend to lack dentists), race (black and Hispanic Americans have historically faced challenges trying to access dental care) and economic class (people who live in poor areas have a harder time paying for dental care, or even finding locations that offer it, since many dentists set up office in middle-upper class suburbs).
She also brings up the unique way in which we view tooth decay as an indicator of a person's morality- a person with bad teeth has failed to maintain hygiene, and is 'unclean', inside and out. We don't question hip replacements or even basic devices like eyeglasses the same way- a shortcoming within our mouth implies a much great problem with our intrinsic self. But, I already knew that.