One aspect of wealth and overall social strata in our society might be overlooked by almost everyone: the smile. How much effort–and how much money–you pour into your teeth might be an enormous indicator of your place in the world. The higher up you are, the more likely you are to have a smile full of pearly whites, not a cavity or infection anywhere to be found. Is it so simple, though? A book by Mary Otto, “Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America” aims to answer that very same question.
The idea is simple, yet perhaps one of the most understated and undervalued indicators of someone’s class and standing. Do you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on the vanity of perfection? Or are your teeth withering away, perhaps even placing you in great danger of death or deformity simply because you can’t afford a routine visit to the dentist? When we see someone on television, we’re used to seeing row upon row of perfect white teeth. When we look in the mirror, most of us see something entirely different–and that can lead to a much more personal cost when it comes to self-esteem and reflection of mind.
The book goes into the intricate details of the flaws inherent in our health system, and how dentistry is an important part of that system which so often fails the people who need it to work the most. The dental industry is an indomitable cash cow, raking in around $110 billion annually. Perhaps not-so-shockingly, a 2010 publication concluded that dentists were now better paid than doctors. This is in part due to a corrupt process of deregulation spanning decades.
Those of us who live in affluent, well-populated areas of the country might also be more blind to the pitfalls of the practice. Of the 300 million people who live in the United States, about 49 million live too far away from a practicing dentist to even think about a regular visit. Minorities struggle the most when it comes to finding the right kind of care, with 50 percent of African American and Hispanic children going without. Even a third of white children don’t see a dentist regularly, a number so large that it should alarm anyone living in a rich first-world country. A NYC dentist might have no idea the reality is so bad for dentists and patients who live in more rural unpopulated areas of the country, and that only presents another big problem to spreading the word.
Although we might hope for a political solution to this ever-growing problem, we probably won’t find it in the next four years. The Republicans in power regularly roll back the protections we already have, and they certainly don’t seem in the mood to add new protections they seem to see only as entitlements for people they don’t gaze upon often enough to think of as real.
Otto’s book takes note that the industry of dentistry became so privatized due to long-standing fears of socialized medicine, and for that reason will probably stay that way into the foreseeable future. What we can do about it now is anyone’s guess, especially when there are so many other, more readily acknowledged and recognizable problems plaguing our society. But as it so often happens to be the case, the problems you see less of are sometimes the worst ones and the hardest to combat effectively.