An anthropologist and the pearly (white) gatekeepers
I meant to blog this a while ago but as usual it got lost on my rather overpopulated back burner. Then I read Greg’s great recent post about the American export of mental illness and this popped back into my consciousness.
So, back in October, former Macquarie anthro Kirsten Bell, now resident of Vancouver, mentioned emailed me to say she’d published a “pop anthropology” article on cultural differences between Australian and Canadian dentistry. Kirsten was always well known, and well liked, as a lecturer who would delight in using embarrassing stories, often from her own experience (and of her own bodily functions) to bring home points about cross-cultural understandings of the body, disgust, smell, etc to first year students. She would delight in nothing more than using stories of shit and farts to unsettle and titillate students as part of the process of “unteaching” which, it has been suggested, anthropology training is all about. Kirsten has taken the same approach in her piece on dentistry, using her crooked and not-quite-pearly-white choppers as fodder for an entertaining anthropological tale of some impromptu fieldwork in the dentist’s chair.
A central point of the article is that understandings of dental health are are permeated with ideas of morality, guilt and redemption. Her off-white teeth, once perfectly adequate, are suddenly found to be lacking in a society which she sees as more obsessed with (American style?) bright whites. She likens dental surgeries to churches, in which one is given a clear sense of the difference between the saved and the damned:
Like any church, pictures of the object of devotion adorn the office walls: the white, straight teeth of salvation and the horribly decayed teeth of the damned – a warning of the dangers of failing to abide by the ritual ablutions of regular brushing, flossing, mouth washing etc., prescribed by the dentist.
I have a theory that dentists are almost universally feared not because of the torture they inflict upon our mouths, but because of the guilt and shame they inflict upon our consciences. This is because good dentists, like priests, trade in guilt. However, there is no quick fix for the sins of poor dentition, no dental equivalent of a Hail Mary that might return one to a state of grace.
There is only the long, hard road to salvation: sonic toothbrushes, regular flossing, braces, teeth whitening, veneers, dental bonding, mouth guards, fluoride treatments and the like. For my dentist and her hygienist, not wanting to have the best teeth you can is akin to not wanting to be a better person. They are therefore evangelical in their desire to show me the error of my ways and embrace the dazzling toothed, unlined-skinned me I could be.
This is a light-hearted example of how the anthropological gaze can be used quite effectively to show up something of the invisible aura of the taken for granted, those aspects of social life that are both in plain sight and out of view. In this case it helps us to notice that notions of “health” is never simply the lack of illness. Ideas of good health intersect with notions of morality and beauty, and having good teeth could imply something about your character, even your worthiness as a human being. I’m reminded of discussions of obesity, where notions of health, aesthetics, class and morality are hard to disentangle from each other.