What’s your deepest darkest fear? Mine, I’ve come to realise over the course of time, may actually be dental hygienists. This, please feel free to refrain from pointing out, explains why my teeth are smelly and caramel-coloured and I’m going to spend the last decades of my life eating only soup.
Why hygienists? It’s dentists, I know, that scare most people more—with their whining drills, needles dripping anaesthetic and enthusiasm for kneeling on your chest and ripping things out of your face with pliers. Many a case of dental caries, to be sure, has gone untreated as a direct result of Laurence Olivier’s performance in Marathon Man. Hygienists are regarded as their more or less herbivorous cousins.
That’s the way I felt, back in the day. For most of my twenties my beef with hygienists was not that I feared them, but that I simply couldn’t see the point of them. With dentists, at least, you knew where you were: if you have a hole in your tooth, the dentist is the go-to guy. The procedure might not be pleasant, but at the end of it you’ll either have no hole in your tooth, or no tooth. Badda-bing badda-boom.
Hygienists, on the other hand—they did… what, exactly? Oh, sure, they were pleasant enough. When I was a child, my mother would take me along once every few months. The process involved disclosing tablets, which were actually super-fun: you chewed this tanninous little purple disco biscuit and then grinned. All the plaque on your teeth was lurid red. Then you brushed it off. You always had that trade-off: did you give your teeth a massive scrubbing before you went to the hygienist so as to impress them; or did you let things slide so you looked cool, like a vampire, at disclosing tablet time? Big choice for an eight-year-old.
Like the Jesuits, who are said to maintain that if they get their hooks into the child the adult isn’t going anywhere (I paraphrase), hygienists use the fun of disclosing tablets to sucker you into the habit of visiting them. When you’re a grown-up, they change the game. Now you’re having tartar scraped off your teeth with bloody great billhooks, or this incredibly gritty paste whizzed over your molars with what feels like some sort of spinning rubber pad.
The visits got marginally less pleasant, but the sense of pointlessness remained. Even…