If you could time-travel into the past, to any era really, one of the things you would first notice would be how bad most people's dental health was.
In ancient Egypt, for instance, the everyday method of grinding grain into flour introduced dust fragments that gradually wore down one's teeth until trouble resulted. In all periods, the sweet delicacies enjoyed by the well-off might corrode their teeth. Seafarers and others on a restricted diet poor in vital vitamins would have gum disease and teeth that loosened or dropped out. And everyday violence might lead to the chipping, loosening and knocking-out of teeth. Add in the lack of modern dental cleaning aids, or even a daily dental cleaning habit, and rotten teeth with gaps in them were quite normal, and anything else exceptional, something to wonder at.
So much so that you, the time traveller, would be remarked upon as soon as you smiled, because your teeth would seem extraordinarily white and regular, if not positively pristine. That might be dangerous in the wrong time or place. What would be merely unusual and remarkable in 1800 would smack of something disturbingly out of the natural order in 1500 - something associated with witchcraft, and preservation by the Devil. With most unwelcome results. So, if contemplating any time travel, it might pay to think carefully before offering a friendly grin to the unsuspecting locals.
Setting aside such fantasies, and biting hard on 2014 instead, I am amazed at the quality of modern dentistry and its importance in everyday life. My dentist has been my ally since 1996 in preserving my teeth from terminal decay and extraction. The village practice I attend every six months may be housed in a Victorian terrace, but the equipment, skills, treatments and attitude are all very twenty-first century, even down to clear statements in the waiting area that this is a practice that welcomes gender diversity. The lady I always see, Nina, knew the Old Me me for years and years. Six more recent years as Lucy Melford have at no point thrown her. Of course not: she is not the sort to take a prejudicial view on life; and besides, the inside of my mouth, and the teeth in there, have not changed.
She has consistently urged me to eat wisely and and clean my teeth thoroughly, and I have listened. The happy result is that the yellowy, rather fragile pegs of fifteen years ago are now the gleaming gnashers you see when I gurn at you in my selfies. Such as:
I was once not terribly keen to give such a big toothy smile. Although my rows of teeth are not absolutely even (in the film-star fashion), I have - luckily - never had crooked teeth, nor teeth that 'wander' and crowd each other or create gaps. Even so, I was self-conscious about them. No longer. They may not be perfection, but they are presentable. And so I flash them to the world without a care. Indeed I regard them, like my hair, as assets. They say: I look after myself. They also say: I have teeth that are better than average for my generation.
My generation was the first post-war generation to enjoy unrestricted access to confectionery and all the teeth-destroying things a child's pennies could buy. Tooth decay started in babyhood. Babies liked dummies filled with rose hip syrup. Apparently I did. It didn't matter too much about the milk teeth coming adrift - not at a reward-rate of sixpence per tooth, if Mum and Dad could afford it! But kids in my day didn't understand that the next set of teeth would have to last the rest of their life.
The consumption of vast quantities of sweet goods continued for years. The effect on teeth was disastrous. Tooth ache and visits to the dentist were a constant thing with every child I knew. Our dentist in Barry in the 1950s had old-fashioned, rather frightening equipment. Drills that were very noisy, for instance, with visible moving parts that didn't inspire confidence. It was an ordeal, whatever the anaesthetic used, gas or injection. The torture chamber. So much so that afterwards he rewarded every child with some 'dolly mixtures' - little bits of liquorice and candy, to make us feel better. Funny he should do that, eh? But the dolly mixtures were the one thing that we liked about going to the dentist. They were the bribe.
And later, at grammar school in Southampton, the most popular place was the Tuck Shop, almost the last old-school institution to die.
I must have begun to move away from endless sweet stuff during my teens, at first concentrating on milk or plain chocolate, and then abandoning even that as my tastes changed and savoury flavours became my preference. Nowadays I eat no sweets of any kind, except the odd non-gooey thing out of a box of chocolates, if offered at someone else's house. So different from childhood!
Somehow I have kept all of my original teeth. Many are much-repaired, in recent years by cosmetic fillings that perfectly match the rest of the tooth, giving my dentition a spuriously young look. There are several crowns, also colour-matched. There is of course no nicotine-staining.
The molars, which took the worst of the childhood sugar onslaught, are if not crowned still heavily filled with the older silver fillings. In the time ahead, I dare say these silver fillings will give more and more trouble, but for now they remain stable, are not crumbling or chipping, and do their job. A warning bell has lately sounded, though. Discomfort in my right-hand upper wisdom tooth took me back to my dentist. She found a fracture, but managed to drill it away and to refill this difficult-to-access tooth. But it had to be a deep filling, and I'm thinking there can't be an awful lot of the original tooth still there! One imagines a hollowed-out structure that holds together (and resists pressure from biting and chewing) only by virtue of the filling material, which acts as a 'glue'!
She has warned me that if this particular wisdom tooth gives further trouble, extraction will have to be considered. I am therefore going to be gentle with it. I gave up eating hard things like certain nuts, and pork crackling, long ago. Now I will chew most carefully, and not stress this latest repair job. I really don't like the idea of losing any tooth. Appearance-wise, this wisdom tooth is so far back in my mouth that the most frenzied grinning won't betray the loss. But that's not the point. I want to die with all my dentition in place, however much hacked about to keep it going.
Besides, nobody is going to give me sixpence if the thing has to come out!
As I said, my modern dental presentation passes muster with sensible daily care alone, and I'm glad that I haven't had to endure the metal braces some transitioning friends have had to wear for a year or more, to straighten their teeth, and make them as regular as a line of tombstones. Although no doubt they can now show a more perfect and attractive smile than I can.
For a woman, the quality of her smile is important. It helps so much to have regular, healthy-looking teeth and gums. It's worth the time and effort to get them looking good.
There is also the positive social effect that smiling has.
I see some women about who don't constantly give the world a smiling face. This gives the downbeat impression that they have suffered. That they have a horrible home life, for instance. Or that they never had a chance. Rightly or wrongly it's offputting. It makes them seem belligerent and cross and antagonistic. It might just be a cultural thing - their family do not smile, people in their neighbourhood do not smile. But I can't help thinking that if they broke the inherited mould, and made it a habit to smile, their lives would seem better. And they might change the habits of those close to them. It's only my opinion. But I for one would think them admirable, smiling in the face of clear disadvantage and discouragement.
Thankfully I also notice plenty of ordinary smiling female faces, especially when women get together to chat. Smiling is typically what women do when communicating. Smiling enables inclusion, bonding, trusting, and the dispelling of any anger or resentment. And when women want to placate a man, persuade a man, seem alluring to him, or in any sense 'deal with him' or 'manage him', they smile - or should do. Stern-faced nagging and scolding never works: it only breeds resentment and an odd kind of deafness. A softer, more subtle approach usually brings better results. Besides, most reasonable men do respond to a woman's smile. And they cannot resist a smile plus eyes to match. I have most certainly found that to be true. You know: when I'm caravanning and want assistance. When I want to ask about something at the garage.
I know, I know, these are outmoded and submissive social techniques that shouldn't be necessary in an ideal world. I've noticed however that it isn't an ideal world, and smiling really makes a crucial difference.
Nice teeth, and the confidence to display them, help a lot in this endeavour. I'd say then that if the beauty-budget is limited, spend the pounds available on dental treatment first and foremost. That's where my own beauty-budget has gone. And that's why I can show a winning smile, but still have a face like the back of a bus. Or a muppet. Take your pick; I don't mind. I'm smiling!