Authored by Minahil Syed
Ever wonder what cultural difference could mean in dental care? The term ‘health’ refers to a multiplicity of concepts, including but not limited to an individual’s physical, mental, and even social well-being. Just like the aforementioned factors, oral health is also integral to a person’s general welfare and condition! You’ve probably heard the proverb, ‘the eyes are a window into the soul,’ somewhat similarly, the mouth is a window into the rest of your body!
Poor oral health holds negative consequences for the rest of the body as well. For instance, consider how bleeding gums or bad breath allow bacteria from the mouth to spread into the bloodstream and resultantly cause infection wherever the spread reaches! Bad oral health can cause cardiovascular disease, dementia, respiratory infections, diabetes, cancer, infertility, and even kidney disease.
Are Oral Health and General Health Related?
As demonstrated, oral health is consequently indicative of our general health as well. Nonetheless, not everyone can access the care or materials necessary to receive affordable dental care, these structural barriers are a significant barrier to patient health.
Aside from structural barriers such as a lack of insurance or distance from a specialist, other factors that can affect an individual’s access or understanding of dental care are culture and environment. Culture paints how serious an individual takes their health, their general habits related to hygiene, and their diet (which directly affects the state of their dentition).
Cultural Relativism: Everyone is Different!
Every culture has its own standards and customs which inadvertently influence an individual’s health. For example, in India, due to the normalization of pan-chewing, there exists a higher incidence of oral cancer. While reasons such as the aforementioned indicate why oral health may be worse amongst individuals or groups lacking dental services or adequate health care, they also demonstrate how differences can account for quite the opposite!
For instance, a study in the UK composed of White, Indian, Pakistani/Bangladeshi, and Black participants showcased that the Pakistani/Bangladeshi cohort was less likely to attend the dentist and more likely to add sugar to their hot drinks, yet less likely to consume any sweets and cakes like the other participants. The study thereby demonstrated that oral health was better amongst non-White groups due to their lower use of sugar within their diet!
In light of this information, let’s uncover 6 cultural differences in dental care around the world!
- Teeth-brushing: In the West, using a toothbrush to clean your teeth is considered a norm, in Muslim and African communities, using neem or babool ‘twigs’ as chewing sticks is likewise a norm. Several studies even report of the ‘antimicrobial’ effects on oral bacteria! Chew sticks can be made from various types of wood, for instance, some Muslims use a cleaning twig known as ‘miswak’ made from the Salvadora persica — a tree native to Africa, the Middle East, and India. Miswak even naturally carries traces of fluoride.
2. Green tea for oral health: In China, green tea is recognized as the most popular beverage and has been consumed for more than 2,000 years, but it is also renowned for it’s status as a dutiful natural medicine! In ancient China, green tea was used to clean the mouth after meals; individuals would firstly rinse their mouth and spit out the remainder elsewhere, then, the remaining tea was drank to ‘clean’ the body. Green tea is often promoted for it’s protective effects against inflammation and as non-carcinogenic, antimicrobial, and an antioxidant.
3. Teeth-whitening: In North America, there is a blatant obsession with perfectly straight and bleached white teeth. Portrayed best in Hollywood where nearly every celebrity has a chemically whitened smile! Some social scientists contend that whitening is considered a desired beauty ideal as whitening speaks to reinforced class differences (ability to afford dental services that cater to achieving a spot within the status quo) and allow an individual to embody the identity associated with the in-crowd.
4. Teeth-blackening: Unlike the North American trend of obtaining straight white teeth, some cultures find perfection in darkening their teeth. Apart from the aesthetic image of beauty and refinement that this act emulates, teeth blackening can actually help one’s teeth live into older age! The substance used for blackening is often a mix iron fillings (small pieces of iron which form a powder) and vinegar — which forms a dental sealant and aids in avoiding cavities.
5. Yaeba’: In Japanese culture, crooked or ‘imperfect’ teeth are thought to be more endearing and attractive than perfectly straight teeth. Japan celebrates the beauty in imperfection. Culturally, Yaeba is found attractive as people find that the feature makes others look more approachable and less ‘modified for perfection’. Some Japanese women even pay their dentists to modify their straight teeth and make them crooked instead! Some compare Yaeba to the ‘London Look,’ a tooth gap between the upper front teeth.
6. Teeth Sharpening: In various cultures, people sharpen their teeth for spiritual or identity-related reasons. For instance, in Bali, in the coming-of-age ritual known as ‘Potong gigi,’ teenagers will file down their canines. The belief is that vices such as anger and jealousy are reduced relative to how much he teeth are filed down. Apart from spiritual and identification purposes, teeth filing is also believed to be a marker of beauty! The Herrero tribe believes that women with ‘sharpened’ teeth will have an easier time finding a lover compared to one with straight teeth.
We live in a society that demands uniform examples of perfection from a heterogeneous group of individuals with varying norms, structures, and standards. As such, it can be enlightening to glimpse upon other cultures and gain a frame of reference to remind us that our own views and perspectives aren’t necessarily universal or the status quo all around.
Authored by Minahil Syed
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