Learning to Smile [Guest Column]


Learning to Smile
by Samantha K.

“We do have a zeal for laughter in most situations, give or take a dentist.”

- Joseph Heller

I got my teeth whitened for the same reasons I’ve gotten my piercings and tattoos: I like how it looks, I am able to do it, and it’s one step closer to perfection. I strive for excellence in all areas of my life and my body is no exception. I eat well, I make sure to get enough exercise and I adorn myself in ways that I think are attractive and flattering. Being able is about acknowledging and exerting my control and ownership over my body. Whereas my suspensions have been about what it can do, external adornment is about what I can do to it. When people ask “Why can’t you be happy the way you are?” I say “Why should I have to be? Why should I settle when I’m capable of more? Why not control my own body’s destiny?”




Two Days Later

Six Days Later

When I was in elementary school, I, like many others my age, had to get braces. Or rather, looked forward to the idea of braces up until they started to go on, at which point I started what would become five years of sheer torture and misery. My orthodontist was a liar who promised that I would have braces for a couple years and then wear a retainer for a bit and all would be fine. In actuality, I had big ugly silver braces for a couple years, then a retainer, after which I was told that my teeth hadn’t actually finished settling because they put the braces on too early and I’d need them again. The braces went back on for a few years. I felt betrayed by the dentist whom I’d trusted and questioned her every visit as to when I’d finally be free of the metal shackles. She stopped giving me even vague dates, so I started throwing tantrums and begging the braces to be taken off. Eventually, my parents gave in, signed paperwork saying that we understood they were coming off early and that my teeth would suffer as a result and that the orthodontist was no longer liable for anything. At that time, I didn’t care about what my smile would look like and was just glad to be done with the whole thing.

As soon as the braces were off and I got a good look at my teeth, I became self conscious. They were big and slightly crooked and I still had a definite overbite. In addition to all that, there were big white spots where some of the braces had been glued. Many of my pictures from that time show me with a close lipped smile or one that had been carefully controlled to show only a certain amount of my teeth. Whenever I smiled freely, I looked back later and cringed at how awful I looked.

Even though I’d never had any cavities and dutifully brushed twice a day, my teeth were never very white. Maybe it was from all the chocolate I ate, or the iced mochas which became a staple of my diet, but over the years they’ve developed an increasingly yellowish tinge. I tried the Whitestrips one can buy at the drugstore, but they only magnified the problem. They go over the front few teeth, so while those teeth became fairly white, the sides only looked worse in comparison.

I’d heard about something called Britesmile a few times, but didn’t know anyone who’d done it. It’s a one hour procedure that can be done at either the Britesmile spas or in a dentist’s office. They apply a special gel to your teeth and shine a UV light on it, taking off the gel and reapplying every twenty minutes. It’s supposed to whiten your teeth nine shades, on average. When I checked into both, the cost seemed to be about the same for that and the custom bleaching trays that you get at the dentist.

During a recent dental checkup, my hygienist commented on the disparity in color between my front and side teeth. Hearing about it while lying on my back in that chair was pretty embarrassing and made me wonder why I hadn’t done anything about it yet. I was ashamed that I had been letting my teeth control me instead of doing something about it. The hygienist showed me a simulation of what my teeth would look like after Britesmile and I immediately decided I’d do it as soon as possible. I was immediately excited, thinking about the blindingly white smile I’d soon have.

I called up for an appointment and could have gotten one the same day, but decided to wait till that Friday when I would have nothing to do after in case I was in pain. I chose to do it at the Britesmile spa rather than at the dentist’s office because it was cheaper and they did it all do so I figured they’d be less likely to make mistakes. It also ended up being a much more relaxing environment; with a very modern décor and flat screen TVs mounted above all the chairs.

The first thing I did was fill out a form with various dental and medical history information and names of my emergency contacts. After that and reading through the fine print of all worst case scenarios, my excitement turned into a little bit of fear and wondering if I’d made the right choice. I looked up, saw the white teeth of all the receptionists and realized that I wanted it much more than I was afraid of it, which is what it always comes down to for me. I gave them the form and was led into a small room by the resident dentist. She went over my forms, saw that I had an average sensitivity to hot and cold, and gave me some Tylenol to take before we started. I asked for clarification about aftercare and the dentist made it clear that I did indeed have to eat only white and clear foods for the next 24 hours. After the whitening the normal coating on your teeth isn’t there, so if you have anything colored during that time, it will stain your teeth. I got a little more nervous when she mentioned the possibility of something she called “zingers” — extreme sensitivity in some teeth leading nerves to fire randomly and sharply for the next day or so — and said that I would be more prone to that because of my age. All that aside, I was still eager to get started.

First I went and brushed my teeth and then one of the assistants came in to take a before picture. After that, she placed a dental retractor in my mouth to keep it open and some padding behind it so it wouldn’t hurt my gums. Then she applied a gel to my gums to protect them from the laser. I suddenly felt wet above and below my lips and realized that there was some kind of goop there which was used to keep the paper around my mouth in place (without that I would have ended up with a really strange looking tan from the light). That ended up being the most unpleasant part of the whole experience. It only took a few minutes before I’d adjusted to all the stuff in my mouth and felt pretty relaxed.

The dentist then came back in to finish setting things up. She gave me glasses to protect my eyes and attached a call button to the waistband of my pants. Since I was lying down and completely unable to speak, this was really comforting. I had my ipod on, but decided I might also want to flip through some TV, so she gave me the remote and headphones for that too just in case. She then painted the gel onto my teeth, put the light in place, and said she’d be back in twenty minutes. The time went pretty quickly and I didn’t feel any tingling or sensitivity. I relaxed and listened to some disco while watching cheesy soap operas. After two more sets of twenty minutes, the dentist said that she was going to do a 4th run, since my teeth had started off so dark. Twenty minutes later, all the stuff was out of my mouth and I was once again brushing (and wiping goop off my face). I was in shock when I saw how white my teeth were. They’d gone from shade D1 to A2 (one shade below the whitest on the chart, and whiter than they’d labeled it in my after photo). An “after” photo was taken and soon I was back in the waiting room buying some mouthwash and toothpaste.

I left the office beaming and I continued to smile throughout the two mile walk back to my apartment. I couldn’t believe how wonderful I looked and felt. Friends and family who saw me later said that it was a larger change than they’d expected, and that it made more of a difference when they looked at me than they’d expected. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself and the feelings I had were similar to the feelings after a suspension: elation, supreme confidence in my body, and joy that I had the experience.

It’s been six days now and I’m still immensely pleased with my decision. I smile more than I have in years and am no longer hesitant to take pictures; I simply smile without wondering how my teeth will look in the picture. I finished the experience with a new school ID card featuring a big happy grin. While no ID pictures are ever great, at least this one matches my mental image of myself.

Samantha K.

Samantha K. (iam:joy) is a student of physics, art, and life. When she’s not publishing undergraduate science research, she is busy knitting. Samantha can usually be found on the streets of New York with her very ferocious little dog. If you enjoyed this article, reward her with a book.

Online presentation copyright © 2004 Samantha K., and BMEzine.com LLC. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published online September 1st, 2004 by BMEzine.com LLC in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


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