Enamored With Enamel (August 14, 2012)




When I was six years old, I was involved in a controversial radiator accident that remains the stuff of family legend. While engaging in a spirited Sesame Street dance routine with my younger sister Jenny, was I pushed into my grandmother’s low-rising living room metal unit or did I accidentally trip and fall? I am sure you can guess who stands on which side of the issue and it is unlikely to be definitively settled. This was 1984 and my Italian granny’s Chicago apartment was not wired with surveillance equipment. Regardless of the impetus the immediate result was that my mouth was destroyed.

Over the next 18 months, I lost nearly all of my baby teeth, dislodged as they were by the blunt force trauma of the accident. As the adult teeth took their time growing, there was very little in my gums to anchor them. The end result was a hot, discombobulated mess that left me ashamed to smile for the rest of my maturation. This was compounded by lax parenting and a certain level of poverty that left orthodontic care out of reach.

I have many complaints about my former marriage but one kudo I will grant my ex-husband is that he understood the source of misery that was my smile, or lack thereof, the awful taunting I had endured at the hands of peers. For the better part of 25 years, you could label any display of pleasure more of a wry grimace. I developed a habit of placing my right hand over my mouth when I giggled that stubbornly persists to this day. Nearly every photo, except for the rare snap that caught me unawares, found my chompers firmly hidden behind frozen lips. My upper canines were particularly unsightly and there is a snap in my wedding album, one that otherwise conveys bliss, that brings stinging tears of shame to my eyes whenever viewed. It embodies everything ugly and unsightly that greeted me in the mirror from the second grade until I was a grown woman of 31 years old.

I started a tremendously painful, time consuming and expensive assortment of dental work that involved oral surgery, deep cleaning, cavity filling, and partial tooth replacement, culminating in three years of brace wearing, orthodontic adjustment and permanent retainers. Six years and $14,000 later, I was quite literally a new woman. As I found myself glued to the looking glass, in love with the replacement image like the Narcissus of legend, I wondered if maybe I ought to be ashamed of the price I paid for pride. Ultimately I decided that the time and money spent was not in the quest of self-love but a reprieve from self-hate, funds that had to be well-spent if the production of a camera at friend and family events no longer had me fleeing the scene. So many recorded, shared memories from which I had been formerly absent in mind and body….

But there’s been a repercussion I never anticipated. I am addicted to over the counter whitening products, jonesing like a heroin addict for the ultimate pearly grin. I can’t stop using them. I have sampled every brand, every sub-variety and am now a one-woman Consumer Reports listing of the merits, demerits, strengths and weaknesses of strips, trays, drops, pastes and powders. Unless I have a scheduled dental cleaning in sight, I am rarely without my aesthetic weapon of choice and I figure like any other good habit done in overkill, I am going to pay an eventual price.

My enamel is in great shape as are my gums, so say the professionals. It’s rather ironic however that the pendulum swung from absolute disregard for the state of my teeth, appalled as I was by their appearance for so long, to an obsessive compulsion for their pristine good looks.


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