Speaking of Eurovision a few days ago, and remembering the fierce stretched lips and bared teeth of most of the happy participants reminds me that orthodontics is a global grooming concern these days. Sometimes when I see a row of crooked teeth in someone’s mouth, struggling for space in limited terrain like small nations crushed by the lashing tongue of empire, I rejoice. For lo! The orthodontist has not inspected the person’s mouth and removed offending blockades of molars, then gone on to wire-tweak, straighten, and finally bleach into blinding whiteness a set of gnashers as upright as a picket fence in a Republican suburb of Alabama.
Happy the teeth that are allowed to tilt and twist a little, happy the smile that displays a less-than-straight kit of teeth. Most young people now present with a uniform ‘wide’ smile, deliberately engineered through the trials of their teens so that they too can smile like Julia Roberts and do the ear-to-ear ecstatic, open-mouthed sourire so beloved everywhere. I know I was ranting on about the Irish smile some weeks ago. I guess my inner phoneyness-barometer is registering a lot of phoneyness these days, and apart from national politics, the Eurovision seems to distil quite a lot of it through those yodelling tonsils, those luminous picket-fence teeth, and the general fake friendliness of it all. Have a sense of humour, Mary, I hear someone say – and stop grumping and growling about this trivia. But the thing is it isn’t trivia for me. It’s a huge mirror that reflects a sea of international miseries and artifices, all of it wavering and distorted as the nations of Europe and what I can only call Westasia come together to prance and pretend to play ring-a-rosies in the garden.
Of course it probably all goes back to my own childhood, when I was dragged kicking and screaming to a local dentist (whose scion son is now a very famous barrister) who used to tell me to shut-my-mouth before administering his best (on one occasion gas, as was the method in the 60s, overseen by the local GP. I had maps of blood on my pillowcase for days after that particular piece of butchery, which had been enacted in the interests of creating a little more Lebensraum for the rest of my teeth). And as for Dublin dentists of some decades ago? I met a few gems as a young one, and heard their uninhibited complaints about my a) “very WET mouth” as same dentist stuffed half a roll of cotton wool between my left cheek and my teeth, which meant, naturally, that I could not reply; b) the need to floss or otherwise “if you don’t, your gums will ROT and your teeth FALL OUT!”, this latter said with artificially magnified eyes through thick spectacles as he beheld the labyrinth of my uncooperative teeth. I eventually wrote to one of the dentists (when I was older, and had discovered the joyous release of the pen) and told him that if he were a woman he’d be called menopausal, such were his tantrums on the day of my visit. To this day, I have occasionally said ouch! to myself, realising he was indeed possibly at that delicate stage of life and for a young woman of mostly silent and mannerly demeanour to send off such a missive in the jetstream of the postal service might have given him painful pause for thought. Or maybe not. But he did reply, and simply said that he was sorry and that he understood I would not be returning. It was, of course, the adult thing to do on his part, and I have to say that he unwittingly taught me how to say ‘sorry’ and to know when to just close the blinds on a little episode when someone has (justly or unjustly) reacted to my behaviour. There is a time to move on and pick up the thread.
But to come full circle to the beauty industry and teeth. Think of those poor women (for they are mostly economically oppressed) who undergo the spurious ‘makeover’ for the sake of a television programme and its fee, which also includes the complete overhauling of their mouths. It’s not a case of Michaelangelo being let loose to do the Sistine Chapel or Delacroix on the walls of St. Sulpice. This is Bauhaus dentistry, ripping everything off the top, realigning the root direction and generally aiming to produce a completely homogenised globally accepted ear-to-ear whopparoo of a smile. I agree that the whiteness – even the blinding kind – can be very attractive. Nobody wants to look at gnarled yellow choppers like a set of cigarette ends in someone’s mouth, and probably smelling the same. But even so; it’s a lot of pain and endurance for someone to willingly sign up for. And they always – always – seem SO grateful. And here’s another thing: I believe the women are happier people for all this intervention, I really do. Because if there’s one thing this world hates, it’s square pegs in round holes, it’s misfits, it’s women with elephant snouts and chins like granite steps, and the women know it. The beauty business is damn cruel. But the women who sign up – the half-way sane ones who aren’t totally obsessive, I mean – seem to end up generally happier in themselves. Something to think about, isn’t it?