Just the thought of getting all your teeth yanked out can be pretty horrifying – maybe even more nightmarish in light of our cultural obsession with youthful, toothy, super-white smiles.
That might make it hard to wrap your head around the fact that there’s ever been such a thing as ritual tooth extraction. Yet many cultures have practiced just that – and not so long ago or far away as you might think.
For instance, a letter recently published in the British Dental Journal noted that,
In some areas of the UK only a few generations ago, it was common practice for a bride-to-be to have a full dental clearance and complete dentures provided in the belief that this would reduce future dental problems and financial burden on her husband.
But not only was this done in the West into the first half of the 20th century; it’s been done in the 21st century, too.
This was the subject of a 2011 paper in the Journal of Women’s Health, which surveyed dentists in the Acadian regions of Canada – the eastern Maritime provinces and part of Quebec – to “confirm the existence of this practice among Acadian women.”
Nine percent reported having been asked to do the extractions. Slightly more said they knew about the practice.
One dentist described his role against this practice: ‘‘I am one of the pioneers who changed this practice of dentistry in my county. I am sure that certain dentists still perform it.’’ [translated from French] Another dentist shared the story of her mother, whose teeth were extracted at age 16 when she briefly joined a convent, then changed her mind and married: ‘‘Dentures were a dowry for marriage. All her sisters also were edentulous when they got married.’’ [translated from French] Four dentists mentioned the practice in groups outside the Acadian region: all four considered it a French-Canadian or Quebec practice, and one also reported it as a practice in Great Britain ‘‘because someone was coming to the ‘colonies’ [Canada] and might not have access to dentists.’’
It’s possible that the practice relates to a rudimentary understanding of the relationship between pregnancy and oral disease – “a tooth [lost] per child,” as the saying goes. While pregnancy doesn’t cause gum disease, per se, hormonal shifts (increased progesterone in particular) can make the oral tissues more vulnerable to problems (and these, in turn, can affect the health of the child).
Of course, edentulism – toothlessness – isn’t without its own problems, and not just aesthetic ones either.