Opinion: The musical Annie got it in one. “You’re never fully dressed without a smile,” cast members sing.
Most of us take our grins for granted.
Yet for some, not being able to smile comes at a huge personal cost.
Sheetz, an American coffee shop chain, hit the news recently because of its policy that bans employees with visible teeth problems. Its employee handbook states that ‘applicants with obvious missing, broken or badly discoloured teeth … are not qualified for employment with Sheetz’.
After media coverage, Sheetz has reviewed and removed the policy recognising it was out-of-step with its company values of recognising and honouring the diverse experiences of its employees.
The policy may be gone but (forgive me for being cynical) I doubt the behaviours will: the expectation that your coffee is served by someone with a full mouth of pearly whites.
I doubt any New Zealand companies have such overt statements about physical appearances in their hiring policies.
But I bet applicants are insidiously judged on the state of their teeth anyway.
So not only will bad teeth hurt your gums, they’ll hurt your employment prospects too.
This is in a country where the cost of dental care is prohibitive for most. A report by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Toi Mata Hauora found 40 percent of New Zealanders – and half of Māori and Pasifika people – can’t afford dental care.
While debate about universal access to dental care goes on … there is something we can all do that costs nothing: check our own prejudices when we are greeted by a less than perfect smile
The report found a quarter of a million New Zealanders annually have their teeth pulled because the decay is so bad. Over the past decade there has been a 31 percent increase in hospitalisations for oral health.
We hold the record for the highest unmet need for adult dental care among 11 comparable countries. Not an accolade anyone would be proud of.
At the Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust, we see the impact of bad teeth first hand. Many who stay with us have not had access to proper dental care for many years, if at all.
They know the judgment they face in a job interview should they show their imperfect smiles. Damaged smiles, low confidence, poor self-image, and poor employment prospects go together.
For one woman who stayed with us, thanks to funding from the Clare Foundation, we were able to get her dentures. “Getting support with my teeth was the motivation to get my full-time job,” she said. “I no longer will be covering my mouth or looking down at the ground. This will encourage me to present myself in a way I used to.”
She completed her studies, has a full-time job and her grin is never far away. One success story thanks to a proactive philanthropist.
But there are thousands of people damaged not only by the poor state of their teeth, but also by our attitudes towards them.
While debate about universal access to dental care goes on (something the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists is advocating for), there is something we can all do that costs nothing: check our own prejudices when we are greeted by a less than perfect smile.
Now all that is needed is for this column to end with a cheesy smile quote. Here it is: smile – sunshine is good for your teeth (if you have any, that is).