Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Maxie & Me

I’ve become aware of teeth--mine and everybody else’s. I’ve got a crooked tooth, specifically my second from the front, the Latin name of which is the Maxillary Lateral Incisor—let us call her Maxie. Maxie overlaps the front tooth next to it a little. Two moments stand out in my memory about Maxie:

1) When I was 12 and at that age when one is as self-aware as one can be, I’d spent a lifetime looking in the mirror trying to figure out who I was but I’d never paid much attention to Maxie until my dear Grandma (with the best of intentions, I’m quite sure) said: “That tooth gives you character”. Tooth? Crooked tooth!
2) My oldest son at 6, completely apropos of nothing, leaned toward me, poked Maxie with his skinny finger and said, “That tooth makes me sick.” Huh?

These incidences aside, I’ve never been too bothered by Maxie. I guess I internalized Grandma’s message because I do think a natural smile provides a face with character. For this reason, I’ve never considered installing cosmetic orthodontic devices to my children’s teeth. My youngest has a pretty significant gap between his two front teeth but fixing it would be for looks only—it’s not serious enough to cause him problems so the gap and his Alfred E. Newman smile remain.

But lately, I’ve been thinking of my teeth as I notice other people’s teeth. I drink a lot of tea and my teeth are not as white as they once were. It seems that everybody in my world has sparkling white, perfectly formed and uniformly situated teeth and mine, in comparison, look rather dingy and crooked. When I think about this with perspective, I know that my teeth look exactly as a 45 year old woman’s teeth should look. Historically and globally, my teeth are in fantastic shape. I may have a lot of silver in my mouth but I’ve got all my originals and can eat and drink with no pain or trouble. I know I’m amazingly lucky to have been born during a time of fluoride, toothbrushes and dentistry (as opposed to barber-dentists…shudder). But I look at all the really stunning smiles on all the people around me and I think I should maybe do some cosmetic whitening or something to look “better”.

And then, I’ll be downtown or in some public place and I’ll notice the working class and economically challenged folks who have not had the same access to sometimes even rudimentary dental care, and for sure not orthodonture and I see that this is where the true social divide is most acutely evidenced.

Them that’s got, have 32 pearly ones. Them that’s not, usually don’t.

I was listening to a 2009 Terry Gross interview with Tom Ford, the director of “A Single Man” recently. He is a fashion designer who has studied the human body extensively. He was talking about our society being “post-human” because we no longer know what a real human body looks like. All the women held up to us as our ideals are made of artificial parts, something added, another thing taken away. We don’t know what natural is anymore. This is really obvious when it comes to breast enlargement and liposuction and such cosmetic “enhancement” but extends to botox and waxing and on and on.

Which brings me back to teeth. I think most of the people I know find breast enlargement to be unnecessary and possible offensive. Not many people in my world would have a tummy tuck or other cosmetic surgery to look younger. But how many people in my world have had cosmetic dentistry done? How many have whitened their teeth? Is this not one, seemingly benign, end of the same spectrum?
I guess the question for me is: How much of this is bearing false witness? How much of this is representing oneself to be something other than what one is? I’m not sure. There are certainly things about my physical self that I’m not crazy about but then I remind myself that I’m 45 years old and have birthed three babies (not to mention that I’ve had a pretty sedentary life for the past couple of years). If I were to bleach my teeth, am I putting forward a false self? If I wear a push-up bra? If I color my hair cherry, not to cover the grey but just for fun? In some ways this comes back to the Simplicity Testimony and also Integrity. Why would I be doing these things? What intention to I bring to each decision? Is it to deceive people? Is it to look better? What does better mean? Better to whom? Better according to what standards? With the exception of the teeth bleaching, most of what I do in regards to my appearance is to have playful fun. For me, clothing and hairstyles and jewelry and such are one of two things: Either utilitarian—meaning I must cover myself with something so I wear whatever is most practical for the situation or I’m playing dress-up. I play with clothing and play with the world through clothing and hair. It may be completely frivolous but I don’t do it to mislead or present a false impression. Even, or possibly even especially, wearing a push-up bra would be part of a costume worn for fun—a prop, if you will (ha!)--not to give an impression of me as younger and less gravitationally-challenged than I am but simply to fit in the “mood” of whatever I’m wearing.

In summary, no teeth bleaching for me and no cosmetic procedures. Fun with clothing, I guess is, in Quaker parlance, “carrying my sword as long as I can”. In other words, until I am given a message that I need to let it go, I will continue to dress in a decidedly un-Quaker-grey way. I’m fine with that and I don’t get the impression that God minds too much right now, either.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your review of the body fixing that our society seems so necessary. Supect that each of us must find our way through the decision of what is simplicity for us. Personally, I have found it changing over time for me - I become more simple, less in need of things as I age. As a celebration of turning 65 I stopped dying my hair, which I had done for 50 years! A true irony is that clients accused my of starting to dye my hair once I quit! But I feel freer each time I let something go! It is a heady feeling that encourages me to continue to slowly simplify. A wise lady once told me that in old age we lose everything that stands between us and God - parents, loves, friends, houses, pets, possessions. So in the end we stand before God naked - as we always really were, did we but know it.

Friendly Mama said...

I've always thought about it terms of peeling back the onion skin although, thinking about it now--who wants to be an onion heart?!

Yes, thank you! Standing naked, with our Original Face, before God. In the process of divesting of all that stands in the way, I'm trying to learn to use who I am now for God.

kwip said...

We each make our own decision about such things, ultimately. If I respect my body as a Temple of God, how do I care for it? How do I present it?
I got my braces because the idea was to ensure a healthy bite for my life, rather than for beauty. I don't 'whiten' because that doesn't seem healthful.
With age, I've come to realize that I have no control over how others see me, which is greatly freeing! I have a similar - dress for simplicity and for creative enjoyment and comfort - attitude to clothing. Some days it is great fun to dress up, some days it is simpler to grab the nearest shirt and slacks and be done with it. I don't choose to dress sloppily, out of respect for myself and those around me. That's all.
The most important lesson I work with is not to judge others on their decisions, because it is difficult to really know the motivation for what I see from the outside. As an example, Michael Jackson was terribly criticized for his plastic surgeries, but does anyone remember that he was in a horrific fire? How much of that surgery was as a result of injury and perhaps incomplete or inadequate earlier work that was done? Plus he was a performer, and "looks" are integral to the presentation. I can't judge. Similarly, actions that look "cosmetic" may work for that individual to help heal some old wounding. We can't know.

Friendly Mama said...

I'm not meaning to judge an individual, although I certainly am judging our society for the things we value. Why do we value what is unnatural and artificial? Why do we let those become the standards against which we all seem to measure ourselves? It seems crazy and very dysfunctional and unhealthy that we are willing to have very invasive and expensive proceedures done in order for us to feel adequate. Again, I'm not judging any individual for her decisions--I don't know what's in her heart and would never presume to know.

Eric H-L said...

Thank you for pointing out that cosmetic dentistry is not the main concern of many people denied even basic dental care.

I read in this BBC article about some in England extracting their own teeth because of a shortage of affordable dental care.

This article in the New York Times is talking about the class divide in dental care here in the states.

"For middle-class and wealthy Americans, straight white teeth are still a virtual birthright. And dentists say that a majority of people in this country receive high-quality care.

But many poor and lower-middle-class families do not receive adequate care, in part because most dentists want customers who can pay cash or have private insurance, and they do not accept Medicaid patients"


Friendly Mama said...

Thanks for the article. I've never read anything confirming this but have just observed it in life.

Yesterday I saw a young woman with warts or moles all over her face and hands. I think I remember reading that there is a type of skin growth that is affiated with early childhood malnutrition. What kind of a society is this when so many people can pay so much to conform their looks to a narrow standard while so many others don't have their most basic needs met?