Dialectical jawbreakers

by Yule Heibel on February 13, 2004

Canadian orthodontists, at least here on Vancouver Island, appear to be an aggressive lot. They really like to recommend breaking the jaws — sometimes just the lower, sometimes the upper and lower simultaneously — to create a perfect cosmetic and orthodontic bite. I’m horrified by this because (a) it involves extreme pain, (b) it takes a long while to heal up (I guess you could combine it with a 6-week liquid diet), and (c) I have this stupid idea that you don’t have to do everything possible to attain a beauty ideal. Repeat: this surgical intervention isn’t being foisted on people who have serious bite problems, this is being suggested to people who have managed quite happily thus far and would continue to do so without any intervention at all. It’s all about looking perfect. Period. Two of my neighbours on my street had it done within the last 12 months (and one is in his 40s, the other is in her 20s), my dentist is having it done (she must be in her late 30s, although she claims that it she’s doing it to cure a bite problem that gives her migraines), and it was suggested to a friend of mine who, in her mid-40s, innocently asked an orthodontist whether corrective braces would do her any good at this point in her life. He advised her to get both jaws broken and everything realigned over a period of several years. And at the end of the line, the financial cost to her would be in the ten-thousands. Yet she looks fine and I have always admired her distinctive profile. Why anyone would want to change their personal marker of individuality to fit the toothy ideal of America’s Hollywood is beyond me, but that visit to the orthodontist’s office left her feeling like an ugly freak in need of a paper bag. I spoke to another friend today who told me that when she was in her mid-30s nearly 20 years ago, an orthodontist recommended jaw breaking in her case. She has smallish teeth that have grown into a slightly irregular alignment, but nothing spectacularly glaring or weird. Frankly, she looks downright normal. But her dentist read the orthodontist’s report back to her later: the orthodontist characterised my friend as in need of this kind of surgical intervention because she “looked like a witch.” W T F ??????????????????????? Let me repeat: W T F??? On the heels of hearing Bill Leiss’s talk at PACTAC, I’m completely convinced that he’s right and that we will see massive genetic engineering very soon to “fix” things that we previously accepted. The pressure is on. Everyone is supposed to have a smile like Julia Roberts, and very soon we’ll be looking back on our benighted age with its surgical breaking of the jaws as a primitive time. Because genetic engineering will eliminate the need for such barbarism…. Submit, submit, submit. Resistance is useless… It’s not just science, it’s the pressure to conform.


maria February 14, 2004 at 1:18 pm

Scary scenario, either way! But, I agree with you about the zeal of Canadian orthodontists, since they have been at it for some years. A good friend of mine had her jaw broken decades ago in the name of beauty, and indeed, her jaw and smile looked perfect –except that she no longer looked like the woman we used to know. She was depressed for a long time after her transformation….

Here in the States, my older son was told of that treatment as a possibility for his horrendous teeth and jaw problems (his upper front teeth used to stick out straight, like that of a horse with a jaw problem….). Anyway, we went the slow route hoping to prevent the need for that in the future: 4 years of braces, so that when they came off, my son received the dubious title of the orthodontist’s longest “braced” patient…. It’s retainers every night now, and some day, if my son wants to, he could have his jaw broken by the orthodontists … though given his “Hungarian” streak that he inherited from me, his jaw may well be broken by less skilled hands in some bar some day….

Joel February 15, 2004 at 4:24 am

Smashing jaws was offered to me as an option once. I declined it. I went through prosthodonsis instead which evened up the bite line nicely and alleviated the TMJ pain that I’d had.

The idea of thwacking the face to fix it horrifies me and it was a major deterrent to my getting my mandible problems fixed. I would ask around and see what other approaches might be available.

Yule Heibel February 15, 2004 at 3:02 pm

What’s so crazy up here though, Joel, is that it seems impossible to find an orthodontist who isn’t beholden to the idea of fracturing and resetting the jaw to fix practically any alignment and bite problems. That’s what’s so weird. The woman I mentioned in the main post took her son to the orthodontist and was told it was break the jaws or nothing. And this isn’t a kid with any kind of massive bite problem… I had braces as an adult, with an orthodontist from Boston, and I didn’t have my jaw broken. My smile isn’t the big toothy Hollywood grin, but I have a nice “class A” bite and ok-straight teeth. But I went to one dentist here in Victoria when we first moved back who, although he’s not an orthodontist, completely second-guessed my American orthodontist’s methodology, suggested that my treatment had been terrible, and that I should have had the much more invasive and intensive treatment favoured here. It would have involved bringing my lower jaw forward (great, think ice breaker), thereby making enough room for the top teeth to all get pushed forward so that I could have that chunky aggressive smile that shows off the upper and lower teeth simultaneously when the lips are stretched. Like the two women I described in the main entry, I left this dentist’s office feeling like an ugly hag with inappropriately recessed teeth and it took me months to get over this and get mad instead. I now realise this guy is a “class A” asshole, a youngish hotshot who is known around town for being “the car racing dentist” (he semi-professionally races his Porsche…. tells you something), but the effect of his words was nonetheless stunning. My son goes to the orthodontist next door to this jerk, and he, naturally, broached jaw breaking for what seems to me a fairly minor adjustment; we had consulted an American orthodontist while still in the Boston area, and jaw breaking never even came up as a remote possibility. We said no to jaw breaking here, and Adam is instead going through a 2-year period of braces and retainers and headgear to try to coordinate the lower and upper jaw growth. Keep in mind that he’s 12 (soon turning 13), and to suggest breaking the jaws of a child whose physiognomy is still developing strikes me as absurd. What if they do this and then there’s an unexpected growth spurt that puts paid to all the surgery? Maybe I’m getting worked up about this now because our orthodontist still hasn’t completely agreed to forget about jaw breaking, and I feel we might have a show-down coming up (cue the Western movie music) when we firmly tell him it’s out of the question.

See, they’re not happy with getting “class A” bite results and decently straight teeth. They’re only happy when they have succeeded in getting the generic Hollywood mouth, and this really really bugs me. Everyone has to look like they just stepped out of a J.Crew or Tweeds clothing catalogue, which makes the actors about as interesting to watch as models. At some point it gets boring. Someone like Carol Lynley, for example, whose size-mismatched upper & lower jaws gave her mouth a kind of expressive sexiness that’s completely absent from the cruise-ship jaws of current Hollywood role models, someone like Lynley wouldn’t succeed today. Her handlers would have her in surgery with her jaws wired up for several months before unleashing her on the spectacle-hungry masses. Or, the other evening I watched an old Avengers episode — one of the b/w ones, A Sense of History — with Emma Peel and John Steed investigating the crypto-fascist doings at St.Bode’s, a college vaguely reminiscent of one of Oxford’s. The main villain, a student named Duboys (all the bad students had Franco-Norman names, 1066 and all that: Petit, Dubois, Millerson which sounds like Millicent), was this incredibly sexy looking but utterly snaggle-toothed brainiac with a leader-worship complex. (Duboys is played by Patrick Mower.) Oddly, his sarcastic and extremely misanthropic character’s sexiness was enhanced by the actor’s ferret-like and imperfect teeth. (And actually everyone in this episode had “bad” teeth, but everyone was also an interesting character to watch.)

I have this weird idea that teeth and sex are in complex engagement. No, I don’t go in for biting or anything like that, nor do I care to hear about anyone’s oral hygiene, but I think about what teeth signify in terms of power and potency, and vulnerability. Babies develop a whole different sense of the world once they get their teeth. Losing teeth is traumatic. Older people used to experience loss of teeth and loss of potency as a matter of routine. There’s something we know in an instinctual way about the connection between teeth, power, and sex, which is why cosmetic dentristry and all its spin-off products is such big lucrative business. Think of the classic picnic scene in the 1963 film version of Tom Jones: ripping and gnawing on meat, tearing into a piece of fruit, taking a chunk of bread straight from the loaf. In the film, these are all allusions to sexual passion. And they’re actions that involve the teeth. I’m just turned off by the idea that we’re now all supposed to have the same kind of teeth, I guess. It strikes me as a loss of individuality at a very deep level. Carol Lynley is sexier to me than Julia Roberts, even though Roberts is more beautiful. You know? It’s personality, not just physical “perfection.” Humphrey Bogart’s teeth… Not a chance today. I thought he was sexy.

Which brings it back for me to the whole potential for genetic engineering, too: we’re messing with individuality here, even though we’re also fixing problems. Maria, you could be right that the Canadian zeal in this approach to orthodontics is due to having been at it longer. I was reminded that 30 years ago I went to high school here in Victoria with a girl who had her jaws broken to fix her teeth. I hope your son can avoid getting his broken — sounds like 4 years of braces was enough. Tell him to go unleash his sexy teeth on a love object or two. Spring is in the air — time for a picnic? Much more fun than surgery, and beats getting into fights, too!

Joel February 15, 2004 at 10:06 pm

I don’t have a generic Hollywood mouth by a longshot. They did want to break my jaw because of the unusual curve but I fought it. I ended up getting all the teeth crowned instead. The face I present to the world has the usual Hollywood smile but on the inside, you can see the real me defying convention by having molars that flare out.

maria February 16, 2004 at 1:38 pm

You know Yule, from what I remember from my days in Canada, it seems to me that while most medical procedures were covered by universal insurance, dentists got to charge at will — and often. My dentitst in Canada (another hotshot), insisted I that needed skin-graft surgery in my mouth to correct a slight gingivitis problem. The little bastard didn’t know that I grew up in a family of doctors, one of whom, late in life, became a dentist himself (my father, that is).

Anyway, I don’t know how it is with dental insurance up there these days — but could it be that there is a pecuniary drive at work in this long tradition of jaw-breaking among Canadian orthodontists?

As an aside, my teeth have never been straightened — nor my bite corrected. And this, inspite of having had a dentist for a father. My younger son’s smile is not exactly out of a J. Crew ad either … but if we “correct” his teeth, he might not be playing the French horn the same way ever again.

Oh, and my older son’s orthodontist made it very clear that jawbreaking could not happen until my son was in his twenties and past all growing…. So, you can see, I trusted this guy!

Yule Heibel February 16, 2004 at 2:20 pm

It is $$-driven, for sure, since dental work isn’t covered unless your employer provides the insurance. I.e., it’s like the States in that regard, and not like the rest of the Canadian health system which is covered by a national insurance that everyone is covered by. (We don’t have dental insurance, for example, but of course we’re covered by BC provincial health insurance for other medical matters.) I think more employers cover dental insurance now, which might account for all these adults going in for expensive procedures, too. When I was in high school, only “the rich kids” had braces (which is why I didn’t have them), and I remember being in awe of my highschool pal who got braces & jaw breaking — and her absolutely secure middle-class status. Kind of scared me, too, actually, as in: you mean if you’re rich enough, they do that to you??? But now quite a few folks have insurance, so… And no kidding, orthodontists make piles of money compared to regular doctors here who have to struggle along with what the national/provincial health insurance pays…

I like the French horn angle: keep the teeth you know and love! Makes me think of Chet Baker who got his chops busted in a drug-related brawl, and his trumpet playing changed forever… Or think of Lauren Bacall (apropos Humphrey Bogart): “You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your lips together and blow…” Whew!!

ray February 16, 2004 at 2:39 pm

‘And without much coercion i suppose
They widened their eyes
And thinned their noses
And it was a great surprise
When they gave up their turbans
And thankfully kneeled and posed
For the one true religion.

And maybe you’ve got what we need–
The Last Marketable Thing.

Breasts were enlarged.
Penises, too.
All fat surgically removed.
And it’s one fine melting stew–
A cauldron of pure joy.
All around.
And American football in every town.
And you know the Brazilians
Will definitely come around.
And it’s one shiny diamond.
Leading us all home.
And everyone is in fashion.
Wearing the same things.
The whole word singing:
My name is.
My name is.
My name is.
The whole world shouting:
I’ll be baaaaaaack.
And everyone is beautiful.
And toeing the line.
For their piece of the pie.

And still we seek–

Shelley February 16, 2004 at 10:34 pm

I’ve had a bite problem, now made worse by recent oral surgery, and I’ve only had one orthodonist mention this as a possible solution. I’m amazed at how common this is in Canada, but from what Joel says, it must be common here, too.


Yule Heibel February 16, 2004 at 10:41 pm

Oh, great poem Ray! I went to a panel discussion this afternoon at UVic (they do let me out of my cage from time to time here…) on terrorism & technology/ culture/ bioethics, etc. Well, I’m not too calm right now, so it’s difficult to cogitate and you’ll have to make allowances for my rambling, but one thing I missed in the discussion I attended this p.m. is that the individual is engendered through state violence (at least that’s what I think I remember from one or two of my idiosyncratic Adorno studies…). So, in other words, all talk of individuality has to acknowledge this basic fact, that there is no individual as such IF, that is, we’re talking about individuals in community. You know? I mean, I am, you are, we love, we ache, we weep, and regardless of state strictures that won’t change. But in community we are engendered through violence insofar as community is value-laden and definitely not without prejudice. Language itself is a force, a coercion: language is violence, at least that’s what Adorno wrestled with, which was the core of his attempt at a negative dialectic. What language forces into abstract terms is the body, hence the significance of aesthetics — the meaning of that word as sensing. You know, the opposite is anaesthesia, when you’re knocked out prior to surgery or from too much tv? (or too many porn movies?)

I guess I’m just losing my mind, seeing connections in fucking everything, which is what you get when you move back to the town that hosted your formerly drug-addled teen self! No, but seriously. Just as after getting anonymous Nazi hate mail delivered to my house here, I went around looking at every person on the street to see if they looked like a Nazi, I’m now looking at everyone and wondering if they had the equivalent of cosmetic dental surgery. Like, what’s real??? And that gets to the core of individuality, what it means to be real, or what real means.

Fuck, I hate blogging. Can I just put on my plastic pants and be done with it?

Yule Heibel February 16, 2004 at 10:49 pm

Shelley, your comment came in just as I was typing up my reply to Ray. Resist, resist! From what I understand, getting your jaw broken and then wired tight for x-number of weeks is real and true misery. Not to mention prohibitively expensive…

There has to be an easier solution, don’t you think?

But it’s interesting how many people have had “issues” surrounding the mouth, the teeth, dental stuff. Georges Bataille thought the symbolic lynchpins were the Big Toe and the Solar Anus and The Eye, but maybe he had it all wrong, and it was the mouth and its toothy protruberances all along….

Joel February 17, 2004 at 3:42 am

I’d seriously ask about other alternatives. There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy body image, but methinks orthodontists are a little too keen on breaking things. Ask them about the odds of the bone not healing right: that happens in radical bone surgeries more than they care to admit.

As for what I have issues about, Yule, the Big Toe troubles me because of gout. My eyes, until recently, have been good — old age finally caught up with me and I have to wear glasses to be sure of who I am looking at. No problems with my anus. But the teeth! Well, the teeth have been my personal hell until about three years ago. It’s not the look, but the feel.

Shelley, you might want to ask your dentist to refer you to a prosthodonist. Often bite problems are better corrected with crowns.

Joel February 17, 2004 at 3:46 am

By the way, I am undergoing dental implant surgery on Wednesday morning. Not for cosmetics, but to keep the whole side of the jaw from collapsing onto one another:


ray February 17, 2004 at 10:39 pm

Haaaaaaaaaaa…that cracked me up Yule.

Just don’t go seeing strange connecting omens to the end of the world in everything like Douglas Ord does. He hasn’t been the same since Columbine. Golby thinks he’s some kind of prophet, i think. Of course, i’m not so sure Golby’s got all his oars in the water. But then what prophet does? 😉 To quote Woody Allen, quoting on old joke: I guess we need the eggs 😉

I’ve posted the whole ‘poem’ or whatever it is own my blog.

Mike Golby February 18, 2004 at 4:33 pm

I love this blog… but each time I read it, I feel the need to place a conference call to those who obviously feel much as I do. There is so much here I can’t respond intelligently or fully… I’ve been mulling over lactation and religious propaganda for a week and now Yule’s pulling teeth, forcing us to face our impotence before an all-powerful state. I’ve just lost a long comment dealing with all these things but won’t vent… It had to do with sex. Oodles of it. But, whatever, it’s gone… sorry.

By the way, sweatman, where I dip my oar is my business. And there’s no need to resort to overt sexism (the Woody Allen joke). Harrumph… I happen to believe we ‘make’ patterns rather than ‘see’ them.

But, yes, I really dig your comments…:)

Perhaps more interesting than my lost comment on sex is the notion that we are brought into ‘being’ as ‘individuals in community’ by the state through a language that is essentially violent (if I understand you correctly, Yule). I’d like to blog something on it in my usual ill-educated way but, for now, offer a couple of comments I appended to Happy Tutor and Joe Duemer’s blogs. They pretty much sketch my viewpoint:

“We distinguish ourselves from our oppressors only by the limits we set for ourselves in our quest for a unity countering their totality … They’re limits well worth maintaining. The Rapture … might well be a cheap scaffold, but I’d settle for that above becoming indistinguishable from the nihilists now pulling all of us into the abyss.”

…or, at Joe’s:

“…the artist or writer’s only rebellion is creativity. PC squawking, a refusal to publish, or media control ain’t censorship. They’re murder. Society’s all-too-usual response is revolutionary (as opposed to rebellious) in that it turns too easily to murder. Ultimately, only writers or artists can censor or censure themselves. The community ‘murders’ by quashing rebellion not conforming to its idea of a never-to-be-realized future or ideal … Ultimately, community destroys itself. The artist writes on…”

For ‘community’, read ‘state’.

I believe we (who write and question, rant and rave) are doing something valuable. The state (an abstraction to which we impart substance) is pounding communites into the dust and a reflection of itself with the very real–and violent–jackboots of lobotomized beings of its creation (acquiescent individuals). Through writing, we offer alternatives to those who resist the temptation of a future based on values concocted as fast as they’re seen for the vacuous lies they are. Life is now. The ends do not justify the means; nor the means an ephemeral end.

We (individuals resisting state violence–whatever its form) are on the right side of history and living as best we can. To hell with the consequences. Ah, damn it… if I had the money, I’d set up the conference call right away :).

Joel February 19, 2004 at 10:51 pm

Here’s another story about the lengths some people will go to inflict dentistry on people:


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