The politics of white teeth and America’s income inequality

I’ve been going to the dentist to get fillings and a couple crowns replaced. It’s work that I’ve needed to have done for a while, but put off because of the cost. I have insurance but have to pay for much of this work out of pocket. I know it’s a bad idea to put such things off and that good oral health is necessary for overall physical health. But, well, it seems that I’m not alone in putting off necessary dental care.
Never mind getting the kind of treatment — professional teeth whitening —  that seems to be de rigueur among Americans trying to project an image of health, happiness and prosperity.

When I first met with this new dentist about six months ago, I filled out a general form that asked various questions, such as what I thought of the appearance of my teeth. Well, given that’s it’s fashionable to have that bleached-teeth look, I noted on the form that I wish my teeth could be whiter.  But my dentist and I didn’t even go over the possible cost of what is essentially a cosmetic procedure. More pressing matters prevailed — notably the fact that, if I didn’t address the problems with two back molars, I was setting myself up for a scenario in which I could one day be in terrible pain.
Ever since that realization that professional teeth whitening would be out of the question for me financially, I’ve become self-conscious about my teeth. I’ve started to feel less than attractive and, well, poor. I wonder how my less than pearly white incisors would affect my prospects in getting work, and I start to see another doorway to opportunity closing.
It turns out I have reasons to worry.  I came across this story in the Salt Lake City newspaper the Deseret News:  


Studies show bad teeth prevent otherwise qualified candidates from getting jobs or promotions. Although the U.S. is on the cutting edge of innovations in dentistry, many Americans have poor oral health and crooked or missing teeth and don’t go to the dentist because they don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay out of pocket for care. The scope of the problem is widespread: close to half of Americans are without dental insurance, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
More specifically, researchers have looked at the social and economic cost of going without dental care. We’re not talking about people who can’t afford teeth whitening, but who can’t even deal with basics, like dealing with caries or gum problems. It’s not a pretty picture for people who can’t afford it:
Numerous studies show a strong correlation between appearance and income. Research by Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas, found that better than average looking people earn 5 to 10 percent more than average looking people, who earn 5 to 10 percent more than below average looking people. “Teeth are an important component of physical appearance,” Hamermesh said.
When Israeli researchers digitally manipulated the teeth on the subjects in photographs and asked people to give their first impressions, they noted similar patterns of discrimination against people with poor oral health. People with crooked, discolored and missing teeth were judged to be of limited intelligence, low class, bad parents, less professional, less physically beautiful and lacking social skills.
At least my teeth aren’t crooked–thanks to my parents who paid hefty fees to an orthodontist in my childhood and early teens. Those fees, by the way, helped this orthodontist go helicopter skiing in British Columbia every winter. Yes, his treatment rooms were lined with black and white photos of his helicopter skiing exploits.
And, I’m not missing teeth. Not yet.  And, nearly half of all Americans, I have insurance to pay for check ups, and am able to pay for the current needed treatment, which is more than a lot of people have. Then again, getting my teeth fixed means we probably can’t go on vacation or various other amenities in life that other people I know take for granted.
Still, as we continue the conversation about income inequality in the United States, it’s worth looking at the likely extent to which lack of access to various health services, including dental care, compounds the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Affordable Care Act expands dental coverage to children, but not to adults. The attitude therefore persists that dental care, like mental health care, is almost a luxury not a necessity.

Meanwhile, if I want to address my teeth-whitening concerns, maybe I’ll have decent results with those teeth-whitening kits that are available at the pharmacy. It’s worth a try. And, if anyone has any recommendations, let me know.

13 thoughts on “The politics of white teeth and America’s income inequality

  1. Dr. Carol Jin provides new dental crowns in San Ramon. We also replace existing dental crowns with restorations that look and feel like your natural teeth. Our goal is to provide quality dentistry that is virtually undetectable.When damage to a person's teeth is extreme, and beyond repair, we can use porcelain crowns to make the smile appear as new. This is an extremely reliable technique for repairing the most severe of oral problems. We can also permanently replace missing teeth to offer a complete smile and a functional bite. These treatments are used for a long-lasting correction of major oral problems. It is usual for crowns to last for 20 to 30 years, which is as close to permanent as treatment can get.


  2. Dental offices often run specials for new patients where they offer “free” teeth whitening with a new patient exam/xray and cleaning.


  3. I certainly believe that everyone's first stop when desiring a white smile should be the dentist. Once you've had them thoroughly cleaned, whitening treatments work much better, and the results are easier to maintain.


  4. I asked my dentist, and he said the whitening toothpaste works, the whitening strips work, and the whitening that he does at the office works. The difference is in how quickly they work, and how white they'll get your teeth. So if you have more time than money (as is the case with most of us), go the whitening strip way. (Still not super cheap, but cheaper) They make my teeth sensitive, so I buy the ones for sensitive teeth, and then leave it in the back of the cabinet and don't use it. Not very effective when you don't use it.


  5. It's really sad how some people set their standards of beauty on looks and appearance alone. The whitest teeth do not immediately mean that they are the most perfect of parents or the most honest of people. If we are going to have our teeth whitened or straightened, let’s do it for the right reasons, particularly health and not vanity. It’s a good thing that you have straight teeth because at least you won’t be worried about any further problems with it. With regard to whitening them, you can always save up for it.
    Thanh Arnett


  6. It's really sad how people would consciously discriminate others just for the mere color of their teeth. I personally think teeth whitening should not only be done for physical purposes, but also for health purposes, which I think is all the more important. Good thing there are multiple ways to whiten your teeth without having to resort to cosmetic procedures, nowadays. We actually now have some DIY steps on teeth whitening available on the internet. 
    Janessa Carlon


  7. I personally think teeth whitening should not only be done for physical purposes, but also for health purposes, which I think is all the more important. Good thing there are multiple ways to whiten your teeth without having to resort to cosmetic procedures,indian party dress


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