I cannot stop smiling

After years of rejecting the idea as unnecessary and wasteful, I got my teeth whitened yesterday at the dentist. My teeth are fine and healthy. They don’t need this treatment to do their job better. But, I’ve been self-conscious about my smile for years. My teeth are a dingy-yellow and the front two are both chipped. I never smile with my mouth open and I don’t like to see myself speaking on video.

When I went to see the dentist last month, immediately after I started my leave, she surveyed my gums with displeasure. Admittedly, I was smug when she told me that I had no cavities, because that’s how I keep score (bleeding gums notwithstanding). It was my first proper dental checkup in three years. Somehow, there was always a meeting or an out-of-town trip that forced me to reschedule my appointments, to the point that they just never happened. Nothing hurt, I contended, and I brushed and flossed, so I was fine.

That attitude pushed me through years of self-neglect. As long as I could dial in, reply from my phone, be at my desk, show up to a meeting in some far flung place, that’s all that really mattered to me. My thought was that, if I fell apart physically, I could always clean myself up on the backend, after the job was done. As for the mental angle, there were pharmaceuticals for that. I cared about being seen as indefatigable, tenacious, reliable, and dedicated. My success defined by metrics others deemed, I wanted to present what I had been given to believe was the ideal image of a perfect services professional, full of drive, grit, endurance, and stamina. This way of thinking still dogs me.

My dentist suggested that I whiten my teeth before she fixed the chips, and it made logical sense. The color of the compound used to bond the teeth won’t change after it’s applied, so I might as well go ahead while I have the chance. Even in the waiting room before the procedure I texted my husband, hoping that with him being the more frugal of the two of us, he would talk me out of spending any money on something purely cosmetic. He didn’t hesitate, “Stop worrying and just do it.” One would think that after nearly 20 years together he’d be aware of the futility of his first statement but, as they say, love is blind.

Looking at the before photo, I see myself straining to show my teeth to the camera. Years of practice have conditioned me to present as little of my mouth as possible. But afterward, when the dental assistant snapped another photo, I couldn’t stop beaming. It was the strangest thing for me. It wasn’t a feeling of happiness per se, but instead a reflex. When I looked in the mirror, I liked what I saw. It’s a little thing and, arguably a superfluous one, but it made a difference for me.

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