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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Community Service-Learning Reflection II

The strange environment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic presented me with an opportunity to learn about the community I am serving in a way I would not have otherwise: by reading a book about it.  In Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, Mary Otto talks about teeth as both a concept and a social issue.  She explores peoples’ vastly varied experiences with teeth.  Through reading this book, some of my perceptions about teeth and society were confirmed, others were brought to my attention, and I came to better understand the barriers people in my community may be facing.

In the first part of the book, Otto talks about teeth and beauty.  Through my own experience, I got a glimpse of how important a smile can be to a person was during a charity dental mission in Peru.  People who had no way of going to the city to get dental work done came to the churches where we set up a portable clinic.  In that culture, smiling was very important.  I saw people who owned nothing, but they walked around with huge grins on their faces.  They would smile at me, even if they didn’t know who I was.  When these people came to the clinic, I saw that many of them had diseased teeth that needed to be extracted, but they were afraid.  Unless they were experiencing acute pain, many people only wanted to get their front teeth cleaned and fixed so that they could still smile.  Oral disease was something they didn’t understand very well, but smiling was something they did.  I can imagine that people in America might feel the same way.

A “good” or even a “perfect” smile is treasured in the American psyche.  White, straight, perfectly shaped teeth smile at us from every direction.  The first chapter of the book tells the story of a young woman who felt confident about her smile…until she became a Miss USA Pageant contestant.  She went to a cosmetic dentist and got a procedure done that she didn’t need or even want because of the pressure she felt to meet the expectation for ideal teeth.  Otto’s discussion on teeth and beauty is not surprising, because it is based on a shared perception.  However, there were some aspects that I had not considered before.

Dr. Ward, a dentist in Ohio, said about dentists: “We are psychologists” (p. 14).  I knew that a beautiful smile could boost a person’s self-esteem, but I had not put much thought into how a bad smile could affect a person with no access to dental care.  In the preface, Otto talks about stigma.  A British researcher remarked that “oral health problems are seen as a failure of individual responsibility rather than misfortune” (p. vii).  One participant of that study remarked, “It’s almost as if I feel as if I’ve failed because I’ve got dentures.  I don’t think people feel the same way about knee replacements, do they?” (p. vii).  Upon reflection, I was ashamed to realize that that sentiment rang true with me to some degree.  I think of myself as a caring, understanding person, but my perceptions have not escaped society’s influence.  In my time working with people in the dental office, many patients have expressed feelings of shame regarding their teeth.  I want to be able to help people feel better.  With more understanding of peoples’ situations, I believe I will be able to accomplish this task.

Otto spends a lot of time in Teeth writing about inequality.  I knew that there were people in my community who don’t have access to care, but this book helped me understand what that looks like.  I had imagined simply “doesn’t have money” or “doesn’t have transportation.”  Towards the end of the book, Otto talks about a boy who died because of complications from a tooth infection.  The boy’s family did not have money, but they did have dental coverage through government health care.  However, that didn’t help him.  Trying to get to a dentist that would help him was a bureaucratic nightmare and ultimately a failure.  Papers got sent to the wrong address, facilities refused to accept Medicaid, and there were waiting periods.  People that I come in contact with as a dental hygienist may be facing similar problems.

In Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, Mary Otto talks about the physical and psychological burden that people with oral disease face.  People value the health and aesthetics of their teeth, even if their situation makes it hard for them to get dental care.  I hope to be able to fulfill my role as a dental hygienist in helping people feel better emotionally as well as physically.

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