The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America
By Mary Otto
291 pp. The New Press. $26.95.
Politicians, journalists and researchers have a long-running problem when it comes to talking about class. The definitions we use are myriad and not always overlapping. Is the boundary of the middle class a college degree, a certain level of income? Perhaps a certain type of job: a teacher or a doctor versus a coal miner or factory worker? We might be missing a still more useful — and more personal — indicator, however.
This is the premise, though not so bluntly stated, of Mary Otto's new book, "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." The dividing line between the classes might be starkest between those who spend thousands of dollars on a gleaming smile and those who suffer and even die from preventable tooth decay.
If the idea of death from tooth decay is shocking, it might be because we so rarely talk about the condition of our teeth as a serious health issue. Instead, we think of our teeth as the ultimate personal responsibility. We fear the dentist because we fear judgment as well as pain; we are used to the implication that if we have a tooth problem, if our teeth are decaying or crooked or yellow, it is because we have failed, and failed at something so intimate that it means we ourselves are failures.