The 32 Tells in Your Head

A professor I knew was very interested in the ways class got represented in fiction. He pointed out that due to the vagaries of fashion there would always be new markers of it available to writers. One of his favorites then was “bad teeth,” by which he meant crooked or less-than-white teeth. (This used to be called simply “teeth,” as in, “He has all his teeth and 2,000 pounds a year; he’s quite a catch.”)

The prof said it was unusual to see famous people with crooked teeth anymore, that this had changed only recently and we were witnessing the last generation to permit it. His own teeth were crooked and yellow, and when he smiled, his lips framed them squarely. With his jowls and wary eyes, he looked like a woodchuck. He was a bit younger than my parents, who had crooked teeth, I realized, as did most people I knew growing up. I had never even considered it.

This has stuck with me in part because not only are my teeth crooked, I also have a malocclusion that the oral surgeon who removed my wisdom teeth called a “deformity.” I was in my thirties then and had brought my girlfriend to the procedure so she could drive me home. The surgeon was deaf so he shouted everything, such as, “WELL, YOU GOT YOURSELF A PRETTY LADY SO I WOULDN’T WORRY ABOUT IT TOO MUCH NOW!” Everyone in the waiting room looked up when I was leaving to see what that threshold looked like.

There are plenty of reasons other than appearance (temporomandibular joint disease, eg) to have a bite corrected, but cosmetic orthodontics seem to have become necessary to be a full citizen in our era. It is an $11 billion industry in the United States alone, much of it done by installment plan to orthodontists acting as their own bankers. Dan P. Lee writes in New York magazine:


“Cosmetic dentistry now represents the largest nonsurgical beauty industry after makeup. […] Over the past two decades, the number of North American teenagers in orthodontic treatment has nearly doubled, so that 80 percent are currently in an orthodontist’s care, with the recommended average age of a first visit now 7. […] According to Marc Ackerman, director of orthodontics at Boston Children’s Hospital, no definitive evidence exists demonstrating better overall oral health for people with corrected smiles, once you control for hygiene. And yet parents continue to subject their children to a drawn-out, expensive, and often painful intervention that might not be so much more medically necessary than breast implants.”


Fixing the teeth as a marker of status has become so expected that a celebrity who resists it has to entertain constant questions and comments, as if it is an important part of her identity. Jewel gets testy:


“One time a DJ said, ‘You may have heard me describe my next guest as a snaggle-toothed singer from Alaska. Jewel, how are you?’ To which I replied, ‘You must be that small-penised man from South Carolina I’ve heard so much about.’”

Most people I know now of a certain age (except those with natural Matt Damon teeth) have had braces. The prof was right. Certainly my kids have, since I want to ease their paths any way I can. A friend of mine with bad teeth says he often has stress dreams about his teeth growing awkwardly, slicing out of his mouth, or falling out. We agreed those are the worst. I recalled a radio shock-jock who used to pretend to eat his own teeth, for some reason, on-air by chewing corn nuts into the mic. That was the worst, we agreed. Really the worst is when we are motivated by shame, which we buy in installments on someone else’s plan.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.