Friday, July 08, 2005

We hold these tooths to be self-evident...

I have a thing about people with nasty teeth. It started back when I was a reporter in South Carolina. I covered an antique tractor show (clich├ęd, I know, but it’s really where it happened.) I met a farmer from Lugoff, South Carolina, with a front tooth so nasty it was shaped almost like a crescent. The rest of his teeth were either missing or grossly misshapen. That man and his teeth are now permanently tattooed on my brain and I am mildy squicked just imagining the guy. Maybe it’s unfair. No doubt it’s sort of a classism thing, though I am unfazed by a lot of other symbols of a working class upbringing, but my brain does it whether I like it or not. People with really gross teeth are sort of scary to me. I don’t really want to be around them.

To be frank, I don’t know that I’m ever going to get over this tooth thing when it comes to meeting someone new. I can grow to love (and indeed have grown to love before) someone with ugly teeth, but it is an uphill battle.

Put charitably, I have a thing about teeth that I get over with time when it comes to individuals.

Put uncharitably, I’m a toothist.

I think that if someone with nasty teeth were in a job interview with me, I would work doubly hard to give them a fair shake because I know my problem is not theirs. At the same time, I don’t know that hiring someone with bad teeth for a job like mine where schmoozing is an important aspect would be a good idea at all. Even people who aren’t totally turned off by gross teeth would likely consider gross teeth unprofessional-looking.

We all have stupid biases.

My favorite college roommate swears that all girls named “Amy” hate her. If their waitress’ name is Amy, Melani says it is a dead certainty that waitress Amy will spill coffee on Melani and flirt with her husband.

All kinds of people, I might venture to say most people, would rather deal with a native speaker of American English with an American accent than someone with a strong foreign accent. Lots of people don’t like fat people. Or women who don’t wear makeup. Or women who wear too much makeup.

We all have these stupid biases.

When it comes to sexual attraction, we don't bat an eyelash if someone says "I really don't like blondes," though we may be uncomfortable telling the truth if we prefer to date whites . (Though we might tell ourselves that if someone were raised close-knit Italian Catholic, that's one more cultural difference the relationship would have to overcome and that being raised in a Hispanic family is likely to pressent similar issues.)

I’m tempted to write off the tooth thing as a quirk of my personality and ignore it. I’m NICE to people with gross teeth, after all.

But if we rewrite my paragraphs and replace the references to teeth with ones to race, I find myself instantly turned off by the person I’m describing. Judging people on race just seems so evil!

If racism was down to the point where it was just a quirk of a few people, then it wouldn’t be an issue any more than toothism is, I suppose. But it highlights that toothism really is something I should get over. (But how does one get over something like that?)

I think about my issue about teeth and our societal issues about race, and I just find the waters of fairness still muddier.



Kim said...

I guess you've challenged me here. Remember, I'm a dental hygienist....
People's teeth are partly changable and partly not changable, unlike race or ethnic background, which is not changable.
If a person chooses not to brush and floss, and their teeth become very gross because of that (and they will!), then you might say they are being intentionally gross.
There are very few Americans who literally cannot afford a toothbrush and floss. There are more who cannot afford dental care. Then there is the issue of education -- do they know that they should be brushing and flossing? Are they physically capable of brushing and flossing?
Are they being intentionally gross to challenge you? Are they also unclean in other aspects of their person? Are they careless or incapable?
I think, in a job interview situation, the answers to all of those questions might also be relevant.
In my thirty years of working in dentistry I have seen, enough times to think it is a syndrome, men in their 30s who come in proudly proclaiming that they do not brush their teeth, who also apparently do not clean their clothes or their bodies, who live in their parents' house, and work a night job. I believe it is extreme shyness inducing them to put a cloud of bad odor around themselves to ward off people from getting too close, but that's just my impression from seeing it several times.
Also, I once had a neighbor who had teeth that looked like a forest after a forest fire had been through -- black and brown snags. One summer he disapeared for three weeks and came back with with his teeth all fixed up -- he not only looked better but 15 years younger. I don't know what induced him to do it, but it looked much better.
In general, what humans find attractive are all signs of health. I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to find health more attractive than disease. When prejudices become destructive is when they are against people for things they weren't responsible for. Teeth go either way.

PG said...

Biologically, it might even be "unnatural" not to be attracted to people of different races, because they'll have different genetic problems, which minimizes the chance of two recessive genes coming together and giving the baby some horrible rare disorder like Tay Sachs. Supposedly we're not usually attracted to the smell of people who are genetically closely related to us.

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