Day six, show me your teeth.
My history with my teeth is a deeply personal one, filled with pain and shame and embarrassment. People don’t talk about their teeth. They are a very strong symbol of class, something I became aware of very early. To have bad teeth was to be looked down upon. No one ever verbalised that, but it was everywhere I looked.
I remember being really excited to get braces because everyone else had them. But when I got them, I was close to hysterical. I didn’t tell anyone, because I knew they were really expensive and I’m pretty sure I had made a big deal about getting them. But that first week they were so sore and cut up the inside of my mouth. I remember trying to smile at myself in the mirror and being so disgusted at my reflection.
Also if you want a little side dose of the patriarchy, I remember being in tears at one of the many sessions where your braces get tightened, and the dentist saying, “Don’t you want to have a beautiful smile on your wedding day?”
You can’t make this shit up. I found out later that many of my girl friends were told the same thing. Oh the patriarchy. I was fourteen. My boyfriend at the same age was taking apart computers and building things in his backyard and I was staring at myself in a mirror trying to work out how to speak without showing my teeth. Forget smiling.
And so began a really messed up, antagonised relationship to my own teeth. The bones sticking out of my jaw into my mouth. At 17 I had a cavity and tearily tried to explain to my dentist that I could feel every single thing he was doing in my mouth. After what he told me was “enough anaesthetic for a 150kg man” I just closed my eyes and tried to go somewhere else in my head. This had happened a few times, excruciating pain, and dentists thinking I was hysterical or dramatic.
Finally in control of my own healthcare from then on I proceeded to avoid the dentist for about four years. I had been told by the same doctor that I was grinding my teeth and clenching my jaw badly, and that I needed to sleep with a mouth guard, but I thought he was a charlatan trying to eek even more money out of my parents. So I never got one.
At 21 I could feel something was wrong with my back left molar. I’d get intense pains shooting all the way down my jaw. I’d close my eyes for a bit, wait it out, and go on with my life. I knew it was probably an infection and I’d try get antibiotics for other issues and take them in the hope it’d sort itself out. But eventually I woke up in the middle of the night, with a fever and the worst pain I can remember. I had to find an emergency dentist to see me on a Saturday morning, and rolled up to a beautiful private residence in Parkhurst. A youngish, kind-eyed man greeted me at the gate and led me in to his beautiful offices.
It was worlds away from the awful blue and grey dental offices I had been to before. With dirty children’s toys and five-year-old Cosmos. It was all brown ceramic tiles and white linen and a budgie in a vintage cage on the patio. I sat down in the chair, and began to sob. Not my finest moment. But through the snot and heaving intakes of breath I explained that I hadn’t been to the dentist in years but no one believed me when I told them I could feel everything that they did, that anaesthetic didn’t work on me.
He looked at me and went, “Oh no, I’m so sorry. But you have red hair?”
I looked at him, confused. I hadn’t slept and had taken about three times the recommended dose for the painkillers I had. My hair? What?
Turns out, the gene that makes your hair red, can also make you unusually resistant to the type of anaesthetic dentists use. Who the hell knew?
He gave me a different type of anaesthetic, put amazing squishy headphones over my ears playing lounge trance music and I stared at the various pictures of tropical paradises on the roof. It was weirdly the most validating interaction I had ever had up until that point. No pain.
Honestly, I’d still do anything for that dentist. Because he believed me. He believed me when I was scared and in pain and incredibly vulnerable. And he had some goddam sense to be up to date with the latest red-head pain threshold research. Saint.
I made a New Year’s resolution to sit down with a dentist this year and get all my teeth shit sorted out. Instead of always arriving, face swollen and on death’s door, with a problem too far gone to fix. I’m still looking for work, but I thought I couldn’t keep making excuses. So I booked with my local NHS dentist, had to wait around five weeks for an appointment. It was fine, the dentist was, at best, cordially disinterested. No squishy headphones, special red-head drugs and tropical scenes here. But I’ll only have to pay half the price for a treatment and I’m no longer playing in the world where money will get me special treatment, like it does in South Africa.
Walking back home I thought about all these issues. How shame and embarrassment started this life-long, conflicted relationship with my own mouth-bones. How sad it is that we judge people on their teeth. How they have become an almost instant indicator of status. How my own journey with my teeth has been riddled with pain, and people not believing my pain. And the relief I felt deep in my stomach when someone explained, in scientific terms, what I had known in my gut all along.
Just a little thing I wanted to highlight for anyone who’s read this far. One, see if you notice people’s teeth when you meet them, and if anything associations comes to mind, and where they come from. Personally, I always notice people’s teeth, because mine are so messed up. So many people have such amazing teeth. Little art pieces in their mouths.
Secondly, you are the only advocate for your own body. Women especially have their pain explained away for them. Especially women of colour. Fuck that. Be your own advocate, no one else will do it for you. We aren’t all lucky enough to find magic dentist’s in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg.