According to those 1-800-DENTIST commercials and a Gallup poll that shows one third of American adults didn’t go to the dentist in 2013, a lot of people are throwing serious shade at the oral care industry. As someone who’s survived braces and who has but one cavity staining an otherwise untarnished dental record, I’ve actually always enjoyed going to the dentist. Maybe it’s because the dentist is one of the few medical specialities that doesn’t insist you step on the scale prior to each visit.

A tooth cleaning is the mouth equivalent of getting your hair washed at the salon without being expected to leave a tip. Plus you get all that free dental loot, like a soft bristle toothbrush, new floss, or the elusive tongue scraper, that all sit ignored on a shelf in your bathroom like the arrowhead exhibit no one visits at the museum. What other medical appointment sends you away with a goody bag that doesn’t include an expensive prescription or some disappointing test results? When it comes to health upkeep, the dentist is about as good as it gets, but for as much as I enjoy getting my teeth scraped with that little hook tool, I’ve noticed that going to the dentist as an adult is a lot more uncomfortable than it is when you’re a kid.

Earning respect at the dentist as a kid is pretty easy if your mom nags you enough to brush your teeth twice a day. As long as you don’t bite the dental hygienist (guilty) or expose how much sugar your parent(s) actually feed you, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll be leaving with a sticker and one of those sticky hands from the treasure chest. During every trip to the dentist in my youth, I remember seeing one kid, who you’d describe as “being a handful” in polite adult terms and “being a miserable little twerp who should probably be in a time-out until he’s 45” in all other terms, in the waiting room who would refuse to go in when he was called because he hadn’t finish playing Pacman in the waiting room. Back in the exam area, you could always find an overdressed little girl en route to a family photo appointment at Sears who would start wailing the second the dentist lowered her chair. Most memorably, there was always one kid getting seven cavities filled with a vigil of dental office employees around him, soothing him as he cries and practicing the disapproving looks they’ll give his mother later. With all those grimy dental delinquents around, it was easy to establish a good reputation.

Dentist appointments as an adult have a distinctly different vibe, because no one’s going to be talking your mommy about your tooth brushing habits, and by this stage in your life you should what gingivitis is and why it’s gross. There are no stickers or sticky hands or high fives when you don’t have cavities; it’s like being sent to high priest of dentistry, and if your efforts please him, he won’t condescend to you about how you need to do better if you don’t want bone loss. On a recent trip to my dentist, who has an odd affinity for adirondack chairs, I realized that when you have both feet firmly planted in adulthood, a routine teeth cleaning can bring up a lot of intimacy issues you didn’t even realize that you had.

I was immediately brought back for my cleaning by a bubbly hygienist with blue eyes. In my entire dental history, I don’t think I’ve ever had a dental hygienist who didn’t have blue eyes or whose name didn’t end in the letters “a,” “i,” or “y.” Sitting in that chair, I wasn’t sure if I should have my hands in my lap or on the arm rest, so I did the arm rest shuffle like I was in a crowded movie theater sitting between two aggressive-elbowed arm rest hogs.

“We’re going to start with the Cavitron… It flushes debri out from the gums.”

I’m not sure how the product name “Cavitron” made it through the focus group stage, but my blue-eyed y-name-ending hygienist got to work power washing particles away from my gums. I diligently turned my head right and left upon her request, and as usual, I reveled in a certain pride when I angled my chin in a way that complied with her directions. After being Cavitronned and suctioned and Cavitronned again, she set her tools down to break some bad news.

“You’re going a great job brushing on both sides and behind your teeth, but I can tell you’re not flossing every day.”

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This accusation is just hanging out there while I examine myself in the safety glasses she’s wearing to protect her retinas from mouth shrapnel. I’m wearing that universally unflattering blue bib that adds 20 pounds to your chin and makes your neck look as thick as Gaston’s from Beauty and the Beast. There are specks of white crusty stuff on my bottom lip, and I see a sliver of drool in the right corner of my mouth. There probably is never a good time to be justly accused of not flossing every day, but lying defenseless in a chair face to face with someone who says they can tell you’re not flossing? Is it possible to even feign indignation within these limitations?

“With all due respect, I think that you had better look again, because I most certainly do floss every day. I’m not sure what you think you saw in there with your LED forehead light and fancy tools, but flossing is of the utmost importance to me.”

“I see. I think I know what’s going on here. I confused flossing—the thing you do with that string—with flossing that thing Nicki Minaj does every day even though she isn’t a dentist. If I may refer to Urban Dictionary, my understanding of flossing was that it meant showing off or showing what you’ve got. I was doing that every day instead of the other thing.”

“Let me talk to your manager.”

As I lay there knowing she’s absolutely right—that I only floss in three circumstances: (1) if something’s stuck in my teeth, (2) I’m having a day of weird dental guilt, or (3) I’m about to go to the dentist and I’m hoping a fresh floss job will mask six months of neglect—I realize that this is a very in-your-face adult confrontation that I can’t escape by pressing “end” on my phone or lying or closing my laptop. Being gently scolded about your health habits is —usually — in your own best interest, but when it’s actually happening live, it feels like a showdown worthy of a talk show stage or a Real Housewives reunion special.

So I start nodding and taking responsibility for my negligence, because unless I fake a seizure or spin a story about a deranged oral care thief demonizing my neighborhood with his periodontal predilections, there’s no other way out of this, but now all the small talk we made earlier about the weather feels hollow. The dental hygienist has subjugated me, and there’s no going back to the polite professional relationship that existed before. Maybe this is why routine dental checkups occur every six months: it takes that long to summon the courage to come back.

All I can think about now is getting that little tooth business card with my next appointment date and leaving. Maybe I’ll never come back. I want to break up with the dental hygienist through a text message. Maybe get an order of protection against her. Against the whole dental industry. AGAINST THE SYSTEM THAT SAYS IT’S OKAY TO CHAGRIN ME (i.e. humbly suggesting I floss in the nicest way possible while outlining the potential health risks of not flossing) FOR HAVING MORE PRESSING MATTERS THAN STRANGULATING MY INDEX FINGERS WITH SOME WAXY STRING EACH NIGHT!

This is all going on in my head while my skilled, actually very friendly and nice dental hygienist moves on to polishing my teeth, and as I waver between keeping my eyes open to show I don’t take her services for granted and closing them to avoid getting tooth soot in my eyeballs, it occurs to me that maybe people aren’t afraid of the dentist, what they’re afraid of is the very intimate, social anxiety-inducing interaction that occurs when a professional goes spelunking in your mouth and tells you the truth about what they find. It’s not the threat of Novocain or root canals—we all just don’t want to be confronted, especially about our tooth stuff.

Maybe we need to try something different to get people to the dentist. For instance, say you get your teeth cleaning and after the work is done, the dental hygienist leaves the room and sends in a Golden Retriever puppy carrying a gold envelope that tells you all the stuff you’re doing wrong in your tooth care routine and how you can fix it. Who could get mad at the messenger when it’s a Golden Retriever puppy??? Then the dentist will come in, check you out, and challenge you to an arm wrestling match that he’ll totally let you win as he shares his thoughts about the status of your teeth.

Dental industry, take note: empty flattery and Golden Retriever puppies could revolutionize how adults prioritize oral care.

17 thoughts on “Why Going To The Dentist As An Adult Freaks Everyone Out

  1. Hoo boy, you hit the nail on the head with this post. As it happens, I’m dreading an impending appointment next Friday. I dislike going to the dentist so much, I am choosing to travel four hours to see my previous dentist rather than see my new one nearby. He is probably the nicest one I’ve ever had, and when you’re terrified and self-conscious, that means the world.

    1. Wow! That’s commitment. But I could probably justify driving that far for a good dentist, maybe even a good hair dresser. I’m so rarely impressed by professionals that when I find somebody good, I’m willing to make some sacrifices to avoid getting used to someone new.

    1. Thanks for the referral! That’s good info. I’ve seen the soft picks, but never knew much about them or why people would choose them over floss.

  2. It’s weird that you wrote about this the day before I had to go to the dentist. Don’t forget to floss! As a biology major, I assure you you may want to.

  3. Hilarious post! I don’t mind my dentist visits but they force me to crazy things like participate in a twenty minute internal debate whether or not I need to brush my teeth before I go in. I mean, they’re going to disrupt my mouth habitat anyway–do I really need to worry about whether I spray them with scrambled egg breath? Also, I can’t relax when I’m in the chair because I’m too busy wondering what the dental hygienist can see inside my nose. Bat in the cave, sinus infection, nose hair long enough to braid? And don’t even get me started on the assistant who wants to know my life history when the effing suction hose is sucking up my saliva and I have a Barbie-sized mirror pushing against my tonsils. How about you invite me for post-cleaning lunch and then we’ll talk.

    1. HA! Oh, I ALWAYS brush pre-dentist, but doing so uses the same weird logical as making sure my hair isn’t too greasy/too sweaty before getting it washed at a hair appointment. I want to reasonably convince these people that I don’t always have marginal hygiene. And I always floss pre-dentist in the hope that will compensate for many months of not flossing regularly.

  4. I honestly never hated the dentist until the last time I went I actually had the hygienist asking me questions with his fingers in my mouth. I thought that was just some dumb TV stereotype used for an easy laugh until he sat and watched me not answer “So what do you do in your free time,” for roughly 20 seconds until he realized he wasn’t going to get his answer. Granted he was a dental student, but I’d like to think that was maybe something they don’t teach in dental school. That, and how to train a golden to give the X-Rays. That’s 100% completely unsafe but I would give in to it because who can refuse a golden?

    1. So here’s how insane I am: I like the x-rays because I think if I bite down on that little piece of whatever’s in my mouth just the right way, I’ll impress the dental staff and after I leave they’ll be like, “That Katie Hoffman really takes direction in the chair. Put that in her file.”

      1. Thanks to my dust and cat allergies I can never breathe through my nose in public places, so my goal of every dentist visit is to mouth breathe without them knowing I’m mouth breathing. I think usually when I leave the dental staff thinks, “Why does Darth Vader keep coming back here? Don’t we have an anti-villain policy?”

Don't you sass me! ...Actually, please do.

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