The value of good teeth
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)
REEMA KHRAIS: It was a sunny Saturday in Lubbock, Texas, when the accident happened. Ryanne Jones was 11 and had just watched a Soap Box Derby race on TV.
RYANNE JONES: And of course, being 11, I got it into my head that we just had to build one, and maybe we'd push each other.
SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:
Ryanne and her friend found this old vegetable crate and decided to put some wheels on it.
KHRAIS: So they crouched down in her driveway, started pulling nails from the crate, and that's when Ryanne's friend smashed her right in the face with the hammer.
JONES: And I tried to pull my face out of the way, and the hammer came up, and it - the claw of the hammer took me up under my front teeth and then caught my lip and nose.
KHRAIS: Oh, no.
JONES: And it hurt so bad.
GONZALEZ: Her friend broke one of her front teeth in half and chipped the other.
JONES: I laid down, and my mouth was, like, watering so bad. And I'm trying to scream. I'm trying to cry. But I can't make any sound come out.
KHRAIS: As a kid, Ryanne was all about adventure, even if it meant getting a few bruises. Like, when she was 3, she jumped out of a treehouse just to see if she could fly. And instead of dolls, she preferred skateboards and skinned knees. But this - this was a different kind of hurt.
JONES: I couldn't even breathe with my mouth 'cause it hurt. Like, every little bit of air on it hurt.
KHRAIS: Oh, my gosh.
JONES: I remember this kid running across the lawn, and he pounds on the door, and he's yelling, Mrs. Fultz (ph), Mrs. Fultz, I killed Ryanne.
GONZALEZ: Ryanne's mom, Mrs. Fultz, runs out and rushes Ryanne to the dentist.
JONES: He puts on something called a composite tooth, and he told my mom that it was temporary.
JONES: But I never went back.
KHRAIS: Oh, you didn't?
KHRAIS: She was supposed to go back for a more permanent solution, but anything Ryanne needed for her teeth never seemed to actually happen.
GONZALEZ: She grew up in a mining town. There was a lot of poverty, and she says tooth decay was pretty common. Filling cavities, getting braces - it always cost too much.
KHRAIS: When your parents told you that they couldn't afford braces and after you, you know, didn't really get that composite tooth fixed, did you start to piece together your family's economic status?
JONES: I already knew. We lost our house, so I knew that the bank had repossessed it. My grandparents had to buy me school clothes. I had a concept that braces must cost a lot more than school clothes then.
KHRAIS: But what Ryanne didn't know was just how much that one accident would follow her. For other kids, it may have just been another summer story. For Ryanne, though, it had lifelong consequences.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KHRAIS: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Reema Khrais.
GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Reema is joining us from a Marketplace podcast called "This Is Uncomfortable." It is a show about all of the ways that money can mess with our lives. And today we are passing the mic over to her to share a story about what our physical appearances can say about our class status.
KHRAIS: Yeah, there are some things about the way we look that we have some control over - you know, our clothes, our style. But then there are things that are just too expensive to change. Today on the show - the financial consequences of one woman's smile.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KHRAIS: Growing up, Ryanne moved around a lot, and money was always tight. Her dad worked in maintenance, and her mom was a health aide.
JONES: They fought a lot. Back then, seemed like the more poor we got, the worse they - like, they didn't fight in front of us, but we knew they fought.
KHRAIS: Ryanne decided her life would be different. She was going to get a good job and leave all the fights and money troubles behind.
JONES: I wanted somewhere that would give me a place to live that I would know would always be there, clothing to wear, food to eat. And money on top of that sounded awesome.
KHRAIS: So for Ryanne, the Navy made a lot of sense. When she was 18, she enlisted in a program to become an officer. When she got to boot camp, right off the bat, she knew appearances were super important. Her uniform had to be crisp, her bed always tightly made and, like the other cadets, her hair cut short.
JONES: And I just asked the woman that was doing it, what's the shortest you can cut it? And she said, an inch. And I said, an inch, please.
KHRAIS: If Ryanne's short brown hair was the first thing you noticed, her teeth were probably second. The composite tooth from the accident had pretty much worn away. Her other teeth were crooked, with gaps and chips. But the Navy had a solution.
JONES: They take everybody in for, like, a full dental exam. The people who had problems all get sent back to the clinic to start the work.
KHRAIS: And did you have problems?
JONES: Oh, definitely.
KHRAIS: Yeah, her results were not pretty. On top of broken teeth, others were rotting and full of cavities. But they told her, do not worry; we're going to replace all of them. And for Ryanne, this was huge - finally, an opportunity to fix her teeth. They took off her composite tooth, leaving it a stump till the operation. Then right before the operation, during training, Ryanne dislocated her shoulder.
JONES: And then they sent me home as medically unfit for service.
KHRAIS: Oh, wow. So you never did it.
JONES: And they never fixed the tooth.
KHRAIS: She was devastated. And it wasn't just because of her teeth. The Navy had felt like this big solution, a way out of poverty.
JONES: And now I wasn't going to have that anymore, and I blamed it on me. I felt like I personally had failed.
KHRAIS: And in a way, the Navy had screwed up her teeth even more. They never replaced the composite tooth. So all she had was that stump.
JONES: Now I've got, like, two-thirds of a front tooth. If I smiled, you saw it.
KHRAIS: Ryanne was 18 when she got discharged, and she felt lost. Her dreams of becoming this proud, regimented officer were replaced with hourly shifts in warehouses, fast-food joints and call centers.
JONES: At that age, people would have seen me as maybe a scruffy punk kid, a lot of torn-up jeans and Doc Marten boots and Metallica T-shirts.
KHRAIS: Ryanne was still set on getting a better job, so she applied to any position she could find, even if it just paid a dollar more. Eventually, she landed a job in tech support, but it still barely paid the bills.
JONES: I did have one lady ask me once at, like, some bus stop, why don't you get the money to fix your teeth? And I just looked at her and said, from where? I was like, that's so rude.
KHRAIS: By the time Ryanne was 21, something in her shifted. She was scared to smile when she met new people. When she laughed, she covered her teeth. In pictures, always a tight grin, never an open smile. Her mouth felt like a billboard that screamed, hey, I am too poor to fix my teeth. Fixing them would cost as much as $3,000, money she just didn't have. And asking her family for help felt out of the question. And soon Ryanne had new responsibilities. She had a son. She was a single mom making $9 an hour in desperate need of a higher-paying job.
JONES: And then I started going to interviews for better jobs, more professional jobs, tech support-type things and IT industry things.
KHRAIS: Ryanne kept her perfectly ironed slacks and her tailored blouse in the closet till interview day, you know, just to avoid wrinkles. She'd practice answering interview questions in her head.
JONES: Keep your head up. Look like you're confident. But keep your chin down a little so you don't look like you're arrogant.
KHRAIS: She looked good, felt good, and she was really good in the interview room. She'd vibe with the interviewer, feel like they were really getting along.
JONES: And then, suddenly, they would get awkward again. There would be that stiff we're not clicking. And I didn't understand why.
KHRAIS: And then were you getting any of these jobs?
JONES: No. The year my son was born, I went to over 30 interviews.
KHRAIS: Interview after interview, things would start off really well. Then out of nowhere, she could just feel the air get sucked out of the room. But she had no idea why.
JONES: I asked some of my friends, some of my friends that got jobs in those places...
KHRAIS: What would they tell you?
JONES: ...Some of my friends that got the job instead of me. And they're like, I don't know. You've got all the skills. You have more skills than I do. You're friendlier than I am. OK, maybe that's it. Maybe I'm too friendly.
KHRAIS: But then it finally hit Ryanne, the exact moment when things would shift.
JONES: And I realized it's when we start joking. That's when I smiled. That's when I relaxed and really smiled.
JONES: Crap. It's my teeth.
KHRAIS: Yeah. She wasn't positive, but it seemed when the interviewer saw her brown, rotting teeth, everything went south. At that point, her two front teeth had gotten really bad.
JONES: You could see the brown stump of what the tooth had been, and then the other one was probably almost half gone.
KHRAIS: So would you consciously tell yourself to not smile?
JONES: So I tried that, and then I wouldn't smile the whole interview, and it didn't - they just were awkward, like, the whole time.
KHRAIS: So then what happens?
JONES: Well, then was the Motorola interview.
KHRAIS: This interview is hard to forget. Ryanne felt like she was a shoo-in for this job. She was overqualified. A friend had even recommended her to the boss. But like always, she didn't get it. So she got her friend to ask what happened.
JONES: And the response to him was, she's really thin, and have you seen her teeth? You know, they thought that I was a meth addict, and they weren't going to hire a meth addict.
KHRAIS: He said that?
JONES: He did. He said that to my friend.
KHRAIS: Hearing those words, it stung.
JONES: I remember my face felt, like, really warm. It was definitely shame. And then I was, like, really angry at this guy that I'd interviewed with.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KHRAIS: Here was cold, hard evidence that just glancing at her teeth led this guy to make all these other stereotypes associated with being poor, like that Ryanne was dirty or on drugs.
JONES: When my friend told me that, I was mad for a moment and then realized I would have assumed the same thing.
KHRAIS: Oh, really?
JONES: Yeah. And that's when I decided I absolutely have to figure out how to get these teeth fixed.
KHRAIS: That's after the break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KHRAIS: Ryanne finally had a concrete answer for why she couldn't land a job, and she felt like the only solution was to fix her teeth. So she slowly started saving up for that, putting away $30, $40 here and there. But whenever she had any amount saved, all of a sudden she'd need money for something else, like day care or groceries or a visit to her son's dentist. She was pretty determined to do what her parents hadn't done for her.
JONES: If it meant that I barely ate for a week, that kid went to his yearly checkup.
KHRAIS: Oh, wow.
JONES: I'm his parent. It's my job to make sure he's an adult on the best footing he can start it on.
KHRAIS: I mean, it sounds like you realized at that point just how much it can impact your well-being, essentially.
JONES: Right, like how much it can keep you poor. I don't want my kid to be poor. Nobody poor wants their kid to be poor. Nobody rich wants their kid to be poor.
And there are actually studies about this. Like, one study from the American Dental Association found that nearly 1 in 3 low-income adults say their teeth make it hard to interview for jobs. And then there's this other study I found pretty interesting. Out of a thousand people, more than half said they think people with straight teeth are more successful or wealthy and that they're more likely than people with crooked teeth to land the same job. So basically, for a lot of people, straight teeth equals success.
JONES: Growing up, everybody I've ever known with bad teeth was poor. Everybody that had money had good teeth. Like, it was a reality.
KHRAIS: By the time Ryanne was in her mid-20s, she'd been laid off from her job and was living on public assistance. And in Arizona, where she lived at the time, Medicaid didn't cover everyday adult dental work - which, by the way, is still the case in most states. Then one day, Ryanne learned something surprising. It was about her dad. He also had bad teeth, but he was finally getting them pulled and replaced with a denture. Even though they didn't talk much, she called him up.
JONES: I was kind of jealous.
JONES: I was very happy for my dad, but also, why can't I have that? And part of me - why couldn't you help me have better teeth when I was a kid?
KHRAIS: You feel resentful.
JONES: Yeah. Yeah, a bit.
KHRAIS: But Ryanne didn't say that to her dad. She told him she was happy for him and that she was actually putting away money to fix her teeth, too. And even though she thought she was playing it cool, hiding how she really felt, her dad must have picked up on something because a few months later, he called her back with news that would change everything.
JONES: He calls me one day and, like, just tells me this whole thing. You know, you need to get your teeth fixed. And at first, I'm going to flare up, right? Yeah, how am I supposed to do that?
JONES: But before I can, he finishes with, so I talked to your grandma, and I have a $2,500 check here. I already talked to the denture place. They said $2,500 will cover all of it. Let's get this done.
KHRAIS: Ryanne could hardly believe it. Her grandmother was going to foot the $2,500 bill, and she had to pay back $100 at a time. Ryanne just had one question.
JONES: How soon can we do it? And then thank you, Dad, right?
KHRAIS: Right, right.
JONES: But the first thought was, let's get this done.
KHRAIS: Right. When?
JONES: And then, thank you so much, Dad.
KHRAIS: And of course, she immediately called her grandma to thank her.
JONES: I was definitely crying.
JONES: Like, I can feel myself tearing up right now a little bit over it, actually.
KHRAIS: What - why is that?
JONES: This is my chance up to, like, look in a mirror and smile and not feel bad about how I look.
JONES: This is my chance to maybe get this better job.
JONES: And this is a chance for me to provide a decent life for my kid.
KHRAIS: It was a hot, sunny day when Ryanne went in for the operation. She listened to the Dave Matthews Band as they replaced her broken teeth with a gleaming acrylic denture. It took a little over an hour. Ryanne could not wait to get home.
JONES: The first thing I did was just, like, walk in my bathroom and look in the mirror and smile - and, like, cry...
KHRAIS: You cried.
JONES: ...And smile while I was crying. And then I went - and my friend was babysitting my son. So I go bug him in his bedroom. Hey, Durham (ph), look. And I smile. And he's like, you're like a shark. You got new teeth.
She smiled so much that day that her cheeks actually hurt.
JONES: I smiled so much that my front teeth would get dry and my lip would drag closing my mouth.
KHRAIS: Wow (laughter).
JONES: I, like, distinctly remember that.
KHRAIS: Wow. Did you almost, like, not recognize yourself?
JONES: No, it was more like, this was me. Like, I'd been looking for years in a mirror at somebody that wasn't quite me. And this was me.
JONES: Like, I was finally recognizing myself again.
KHRAIS: Her teeth felt like a fresh start. So when the tech industry crashed in Phoenix, Ryanne decided to move back to north Idaho, where she was born. In this time, when she went in for a job interview, it felt different.
JONES: I went in for the interview. I had the skills they needed. You know, they mentioned I was overqualified. My response was, that means I absolutely know what I'm doing, then. But there's that little bit of cockiness. There's that flashing the smile at them. There's that being more charming than I had been in previous interviews.
KHRAIS: Ryanne got a call the next day. She got the job. With her new denture, people seemed warmer, more accepting.
JONES: And I could smile whenever I wanted. And in a lot of ways, it changed how people reacted to me, which changed how I saw myself.
KHRAIS: It's been 19 years since the operation. In that time, she worked her way up the corporate ladder and became an IT engineer, finally getting that good job she dreamed of as a kid. And maybe she would have gotten there if she didn't fix her teeth. But in her mind, she owes it to the operation and to her newfound confidence. That said, it hasn't all been perfect. Sometimes her denture can feel like this dirty secret.
JONES: My husband, we have known each other ten years. You know how many times he's seen me with my denture out?
KHRAIS: How many?
JONES: Once. And I had that thing back in my mouth within a moment. Like, I have to brush them thoroughly, like take them out and brush them. I don't do that when he's around. I'll make him leave the bathroom. I feel awkward and embarrassed.
KHRAIS: I was pretty surprised that she still felt embarrassed by her teeth, decades later, in her most intimate relationship. But then she told me how she makes sense of it.
JONES: Honestly, I think maybe good teeth is the standard, and not having that signifies the opposite things. It's not that having good teeth signifies you're a good person, but having bad teeth says bad things about you.
KHRAIS: Even Ryanne has found herself classifying people the same way, like with this old co-worker.
JONES: So I meet him my first day as a co-worker of his. And I know that this job doesn't pay massively, but it pays OK, and we have dental insurance. And his front teeth are really dark. And I remember meeting him, liking him, but also thinking, dude, why have you not fixed your teeth?
KHRAIS: But you didn't find yourself having those thoughts before your teeth were fixed?
JONES: I think I did. Like, I feel like I did judge other people, and that meant I also was judging myself.
KHRAIS: Society tells us being poor is bad or that you're to blame. And even though Ryanne had lived through these circumstances herself, those messages are so strong that she'd internalized them.
How do you think you would feel if your husband or your closest friends saw you for, like, a day without your dentures?
JONES: I'd get over it, but at first, it would be hard. Like, I would not smile, for sure, and I would not be talking to them. So I'm going to do a thing here. This is, like, the max amount of adrenaline.
KHRAIS: Oh, you're taking them off.
JONES: This is what I sound like with them out. You are not likely to hear me speak to people with them out unless I absolutely have to in emergency. And that's the longest I've had those out since I was 25.
Decades later, Ryanne still has stress dreams about having bad teeth.
JONES: I have this emotional attachment to good teeth. And the thought of not having them again kind of - it scares me, actually, because it would be reverting to that past Ryanne who was young and not doing really well in life. I don't want to be her again. I appreciate her. She worked hard. She was a good person. But I don't want to be her.
KHRAIS: She tells me about the first job interview she had after getting new teeth. She fondly thinks back on it and how the interviewer stopped her on the way out.
JONES: She actually says, with no hesitation, you have wonderful teeth. You have a great smile. Ooh, I walked out of there - I floated out of there. I did not walk. I just told her thank you. There was a lot of work involved.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KHRAIS: I keep thinking about what Ryanne said about how society sees good teeth as the norm. It's what's expected. I think she's right, but that's also deeply frustrating that she felt like the only way she can move up and be accepted was by, quote-unquote, "fixing" herself. That's because bad teeth aren't usually seen as a reflection of larger issues like poverty or inequalities in dental access. It's often very personal, like it's your fault. And the result is that every day we make snap judgments of people based on these ideas, ideas that are incredibly flawed and full of biases, like what someone's smile says about their worth.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GONZALEZ: That was Reema Khrais from the Marketplace podcast "This Is Uncomfortable." If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out their feed for more stories about life and how money messes with it. This episode of "This Is Uncomfortable" was produced by Peter Balonon-Rosen and hosted by Reema Khrais. Peter and Reema wrote the episode together. It was edited by Micaela Blei, with additional production support from Megan Detrie, Hayley Hershman and Daniel Martinez. The episode was mixed by Charlton Thorp. "This Is Uncomfortable" senior producer is Zoe Saunders. And Bridget Bodnar is Marketplace's director of podcasts. And their theme music is by Wondery. The PLANET MONEY version was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry and engineered by Robert Rodriguez. I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
JONES: But it's weird because, occasionally, when I listen to Dave Matthews, I do think of dental work.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.