Body Talk

For a childhood fever, the doctor gave me Tetracycline. As a side effect, my adult teeth came in with almost no enamel. Enamel is the shiny, white, smooth, sexy part of the tooth. It would be nice to have some. Dentin, which I have in abundance, is yellow like old bones and permeable like shale, given to breakage and to deep grooves that attract stains. Imagine Keith Richards swilling a blend of coffee and urine and you have an idea of what my teeth came in looking like.

To the normal agonies of adolescence, add teeth that put the viewer in mind of pirates and mummies. (On top of which, I was short, very skinny, afraid of everything, and had blackheads.) As a boy I learned to smile with my lips closed, and I still do so without thinking about it. In photographs, even when I am content, I often appear to be frowning or pondering or merely pretending to smile because of this now conditioned muscular behavior.

I am a public speaker and appearance matters, but there is nothing I can do about the look of my smile. Whitening won’t work because whitening requires enamel. Crowning all my teeth would take at least $40,000, and I never seem to have $40,000 lying around.

Then in my 40s, I developed serious gum disease, complete with rapid bone loss. Left untreated, it would certainly cause me to lose my teeth. It would also, for medical reasons I’m not qualified to summarize, greatly increase the chance of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and subject me to constant infection (and thereby, as well, to diseases that take advantage of a continually overtaxed immune system). The bone loss means the teeth are not strong enough to support crowns, so even if someone handed me $40,000, I couldn’t use it to build a pretty smile.

I have other health problems but they don’t bug me like the mouth business.

The other thing that pulverizes my self esteem is these Michael Douglas jowls that have somehow attached themselves to my head. They say to me what her spreading hips say to a woman. To make these jowls disappear, I would need to lose all the other fat on my body first. Like the hips, that’s just how it works. Even Steve Jobs has some middle-aged jowl on his otherwise starved frame.

I’m sure even Brad Pitt has something he hates about his body. An elbow that sometimes chafes, for instance. But is he man enough to tell you about it?

[tags]glamorous, myglamorouslife, zeldman, dentin, enamel, jowls, hips, aging, selfimage, selfesteem, body[/tags]

67 thoughts on “Body Talk

  1. When you make me conscious of things I expend great effort in avoiding thinking about, it’s more proof that you’re a bad-ass writer and a thoughtful human being, but it doesn’t make me like you more. I can haz more cute stories about your cute kid? Bah. And humbug.

  2. I have a similar issue with my teeth, from excessive flouridation. My youngest has a similar problem. I had my teeth bonded when I was 12, and of course that’s plastic and non-translucent and the result is yellowing with age, the oldest ones the worst, the others not as much. I’m not sure a solution like that would suit, given the bone density issue, but if it is, the price is significantly cheaper than crowns/caps/veneers.

    The other solution is to smile anyway. :D Screw the white-teeth-brigade.

  3. Brad Pitt would have cosmetic surgery, I’d imagine. I’d count that as an admission, but also a cover up. I’m not sure how “man enough” it would make him to simultaneously admit it and remove it, though I’m certainly not against cosmetic surgery.

  4. Nothing much to say that will comfort you except, that sucks.

    My son (5) has kidney disease. Steroids are used to treat it. One of the major side effects is the effect on growth. His younger brother (3) is almost the his size. Steroids has also effected his appetite. He is all skin bones! Luckily, we have him on other medicine that has allowed him to stop taking the steroids. Of course, this medicine has other side effects but nothing too sever.

    I have been losing my hair for years and I am at the point where i should shave my head. I have always been too self conscious about changing my look. Even though my hair (most at least) will grow back if I don’t like the look, I have not been able to make the change.

    I also inherited my fathers pot belly. Yes, over eating has made it larger and lack of exercise has not helped. I am losing weight now. Maybe when I get down to my goal weight (175 pounds US) I’ll man up and get a shave. It’s starting to turn grey anyways.

  5. Jeff, have been following you on Twitter and can relate to your issue. I spent years not visiting the dentist due to a bad experience. Then, when I was introduced to one, they yanked 6 teeth out and replaced that with a bridge. After 3-4 years, I continue to fight this unfair thing. Let’s hang in there and continue to fight this thing.

  6. My wife has got some patches on her upper front two teeth. I generally don’t notice it, but it’s actually served her well in her role as a children’s social worker.

    When she’s told children things that are difficult for them to hear, she asks them if they have any questions, and it seems that more often or not, they ask her about her teeth.

    She says it seems to help them a little.

    I’ve got a few things that I’m not happy with – granted, none are as obvious as your teeth; I can hide everything I’m not happy about with a full set of clothing.

    Your Keith Richards opener made me smile, teeth showing.

  7. My teeth are Ricky-Gervais-crooked and have the yellow peril going on too, at the top visible 20%, so it looks like I don’t bother to clean properly.

    Good luck with your teeth Jeffrey, I came to Canada a few years ago and ‘discovered’ (was forced into by my dentist) flossing. Growing up in the UK the closest I came to floss was the heated, stretched, coloured sugar wrapped around a stick variety. My dentist swears that daily flossing and twice daily gargling with gentle anti-bac stuff will help the gums. As for Jowls — I’ve been to NYC once and (to see Ricky Gervais, coincidentally), what a fascinating and alive place — a great opportunity to buy a pedometer ($20) and set a daily walking steps goal, 10,000 a day is good, if I’m lucky I get 8,000. Good luck!

  8. My late wife had similar tooth problems – weak enamel to begin with and childhood poverty that kept her away from the dentist. At 18 she was jumped (for having the nerve to get pregnant) and had some of her back teeth broken by kicks to the face. At 23 she gave birth to our son, and his pregnancy leeched most of the calcium out of her teeth. The teeth she had remaining were yellowed, broken and painful day and night.

    She decided to have same-day dentures. They basically mold your remaining teeth, fix the molds to look nice and fit together, pull out all of your teeth, slice open your gums, grind down your jawbones, stitch you up and cram dentures into your mouth to hold back the swelling.

    Problem solved, right? Painfully solved, but solved?

    A bit. She had a devil of a time getting the dentures to stay in place, and had to have several surgeries to grind down places on her jaw that were cutting through her gums. Each of these surgeries left her with less and less for the dentures to cling to. Meanwhile, the calcium deterioration may have contributed to her arthritis pain and the bone spurs that gave her bursitis. All of which may have contributed to her death, by way of the mountain of pain killers she was taking by the time she started getting pneumonia every few months.


    I have shitty teeth. Weak enamel + 10 years of smoking + uncorrectable snaggleteeth + not being able to afford dental care while paying for my wife’s = lousy smile. But I’m doing all I can NOT to be talked into fixing it with complicated procedures.

  9. My teeth have thin enamel due to the fluoride in our well water when I was growing up. So I know what it’s like. In the US we assume anyone middle-class or higher will have nice teeth. But in other countries, like Britain, even rich people have less than perfect looking teeth. Your attachment to having perfect-looking teeth is cultural, if that helps (which it may not).

    The important thing in my mind is to take care of your health, if you can prevent disease do it. But don’t be afraid to smile, it’s ok to smile.

  10. I know how you feel. My eyelashes are to long. In a perfect world I would shave off a mm of 3… but so is life.

  11. I have the exact same problem. I have no idea when the Tetracycline was introduced, but its signature is unmistakable. My teeth are almost orange at their core. My dentist here in Akron, OH will do the crowning for a thousand bucks a tooth, but even skipping a few back teeth still requires $20,000.

    I also keep my lips closed when smiling, but I’m always thinking about it.

  12. I know what you mean by learning to smile with your lips closed. Back when I was 13 or 14 my dentist told me I would not need braces. In August last year I went to a dentist in another town and he was shocked that I had not had braces! I’m 17 and about to get rid of these damn things (roll on April) after a year sans anything sticky, chewy or crusty. However my teeth are not fully in line as they could be. They’re a hell of a lot better than they were but further work can only be done by surgery – something too expensive and too damn scary for me to consider. However, apparently, this could have been solved by having fixed braces at an earlier age. Say about, 13 or 14 , that should have been ok.

  13. That sounds all to familiar to me. The problem with my teeth for the same reason. I started paying out of pocket for the work, but finances are to tight to finish. Now it seems all the progress is going backwards, because of not being able to swing finishing the work. I see the jowls appearing and the muscle fading away. I spent several years working hard to be in good shape after dealing with a bad smile and a weight problem in my teens. I look in the mirror, and wonder who is this old man looking back at me. I feel bad and then my beautiful (5 tomorrow) daughter smiles, gives me a big hug, and says I love you Dad. Then I realize that in her eyes right now I am her Super Hero, and I smile inside. I have been making attempts to get back to being more active, and unplug for a few hours a day to do so.

  14. Thanks to a combination of bad genetics, fear of the dentist, and an unawareness of the importance of flossing (until I was an adult), I have bad gums. They’ve receded pretty badly on some of my back teeth and there’s a lot of bone loss on others. So far I’ve had to have three teeth in the back pulled and another will have to come out soon. I have one bridge already. The four bottom teeth in the front are loose and I’m sure will not last for many more years, so I’m careful not to bite into anything that may shorten their lifespan. But when I smile, everything LOOKS fine. I had braces as a kid so my teeth are straight, and I’ve had them professionally whitened before. So no one knows they’re slowly rotting out of my head. I foresee a future of dentures and/or very expensive implants. Yay me.

  15. On the plus side, you’re a great writer and a true leader in the online community. Thanks for all you do.

  16. My boyfriend has the exact same issues with his teeth. I asked him about it once, but he wouldn’t tell me anything about it because he is so insecure about them. At first I was nervous that it was a hygiene issue, but then my mom told me that certain medications when administered to children can have that affect. He always smiles with his lips closed which is unfortunate because I love his smile, even with the strange yellow stains.

  17. Got here through Twitter. What a sad, courageous and wonderful post. Reading it made me feel more human.

    Thank you.

  18. Jeffrey, I have freckles all over my back including these large inch circular jet black crusty things that aren’t moles, I forget the name but they’re like horrific warts. Not very sexy. I have tatoos up each arm that I got when I was about 17 years old, very faded and unattractive. And as a disturbed teenager I scarred my arms and wrists quite significantly so long shirts are about all I can wear ( thankfully I didn’t do love and hate on my knuckles or tattoo my face). I also have toenail fungus, fed to me by being forced by a prison guard we called Bubba Huey in the early 90’s into wearing a contaminated pair of slippers in solitary confinement in the middle of a bad winter (no choice)… he knew and it was on purpose. But mostly nowdays it’s that I’m no longer a buffed brick wall of muscle who worked out all day, I’m a short paunchy guy with 8.0 cholesterol and a waistline wider than my hips.

    As a teenager, when I was in grade 9 I was the same size as the shortest grade 7 kid… thank god I grew when I joined the Navy! Well grew a bit.

    Although none of these seem to match your teeth problem. :)

  19. Hey, I know if you want to endure hours of painful dental surgery, you can still get that fixed. A guy I work with had the very same issues with lack of enamel plus bone loss. He’d lost most of his teeth by the time he was 30, and everyone figured he’d been screwed up in some kind of a bar fight. But he did get it fixed. And I think after all the pain that kind of dental work puts you through, your smile muscles can be totally reconditioned to flash those pearly whites when they’re finally ready. Was it worth the pain? You’d have to ask him or find out for yourself.

    But in the meantime, I do think you should totally revel in the fact that you’re the Brad Pitt of blogging. Will you sign my gonzo-esque busted nose?

  20. I’m assuming the answer is “backward compatibility”, but why not make use of the first-child pseudo-selector to style the first paragraph? (And what is the sound of one hair splitting?)

  21. I thought self-esteem became insignificant after marriage and children…? I learned that from Al Bundy.

    Uplifting reminder: you are a very successful man with a family. Rotten teeth and flabby cheeks can’t change that.

  22. Thanks for sharing something so personal. I also have what Suzanne called Flourosis (, which can make your teeth look brown and decayed. I have *very* strong teeth, with no caps/crowns or any of that, and as far as I know I have no cavities. But I have these brown stains that just won’t go away — and I have tried many times to remove them to no avail. While mine aren’t as bad as some ( they still caused me to smile differently.

    It wasn’t until I got older that I really stopped caring so much and was able to talk about it without feeling embarrassed. Thanks Jeff for helping folks to realize that we are all not pretty little robots with fake smiles and rich parents.

  23. Jeffrey, that last line had me laughing heartily. You are the web’s premiere raconteur.

    As for your issue, no one likes the word “dentures” but they might be the cure for your ills. My dad had to get them at a fairly young age (early 40’s), and he rocked the pearly whites in style.

  24. Thanks for sharing your story. I think we all have things that we don’t like about ourselves, and acknowledging those things in ourselves and each other is a great way to share our humanity.

    By the way, my first boyfriend had similar problems with his teeth, including rotting in his molars, which he could do nothing to fix or have prevented… it never bothered me though, cause I loved him. To me he was very attractive, smirky smile and all.

    I guess what I am getting at is that I am sure that you are/will be fine. :)

  25. I hear you. Calcium deficiency, braces, and several oral surgeries starting at age 6.

    One option, which I imagine your dentist has mentioned, is implants. Not necessarily for looks but for oral health. Regardless, you’re a charming writer and that’s worth all the pearly whites in the world. And I bet the ladies in your life (wife and daughter) think you’re hot stuff and that’s what matters.

  26. Jeffrey, thanks for making feel a little better about my own dental problems. I’m in a very similar situation, but a bit further along, I think. Both of my front teeth are now gone, others are cracking/breaking. I didn’t know about the Tetracycline link, but it helps to explain a lot. I’ve got a bit of a toothache right now, but I make it through. There always seems to be something else that needs to be paid up rather than getting my teeth pulled and dentures. Maybe a few more good web projects this year and I can finally get it done. Thanks again, for always being very, very real with all of us.

  27. Jeffrey, as ever, thank you for this. I’ve learnt as much about writing from you as I have about web standards. You never fail to surprise and entertain me, but I love your writing best when you go further and are really affecting, as you are here. It feels a little gushy to say this, so you’ll just have to conjure my sincerity: Your work and writing are treasures in my life, and I’m grateful for them. Thanks.

  28. Several people talk about smiling with your lips closed as if it were some arcane art that takes years of training to master, and that no one would ever go to the trouble of learning it unless they wanted to hide something in their mouths.

    I’ve always smiled with my lips closed, naturally. And I’m not afraid to show my teeth. It’s just the way my face is wired, and it’s perfectly normal.

    When I do smile showing my teeth, I always do it consciously, and it’s deliberately exaggerated, showing as much teeth as I can, to look like an ear-to-ear crazy smile. But I don’t do warm, sincere smiles showing my teeth, because then it just looks like I’m faking it.

  29. I read this post, browsed off, and had to come back.
    Damn you. You’ve been really goin’ “Oprah” lately, haven’t you?
    First of all, beware of your daughter. Daughters know they’ve got you wrapped around their little finger and they take advantage. It won’t be long before she smiles, calls you “meth mouth” to your face and you’ll love her all the more for her brutal frankness.
    Me, I’ve got “teenager titties” – or so my daughter informed when she was about ten or so. I’m built somewhat stocky and have been “endowed” with breasts on the fleshy side, so to speak. (Turns out I’ve got good company, it’s also a trait common in the Kennedy family – as in John F. and Teddy.)
    Back when I played high school football and had pecs to match, it wasn’t so bad – but later on with atrophy and 30lbs of flab it was “Hey, man, where’s your brassiere?”
    However, I recently lost weight and my daughter says they’re not so bad anymore. That’s my girl – five feet of pure feedback.
    Anyway, that’s it. Guilt assuaged.

  30. I know how you feel. As a child cured with loads of tetracycline my teeth are dark and yellow. I’ve learned to smile with closed mouth, too.

    But – I’m happy because I have all teeth and because they are healthy. Having almost no cavities and had toothache only once in my life. I know that my family and friends love me anyway.

  31. Way back, before the browser wars, there was Zeldman. The box model was an issue. Fast forward 10 or more years, and the original icons still inspire.

    A List Apart, The Deck, An Event Apart – all nspiring.

    Why now? So you’re less attractive than before. C’mon, the book cover was bad, but the inside jacket and promo tour posters were truly frightful. When a beanie is you’re most attractie feature, you know it’s bad already.

    Fuck it -you’re getting old. Do it disgracefully, or at least be standards compliant. Just don’t join the beige brigade and respond to those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

    Be a hero, and don’t post anything about nostril hair… ever.

    13px padding, 10px margin. Deal with it.

  32. I had the same problem with Tetracycaline. I went through High School and College with bad looking front teeth. Fortunately my first job out of college had dental insurance as did my wife. I went to a new dentist and he looked at my insurance coverage and told me he could fix things and it would cost me little. I was so lucky. After the work was complete the dentist brought me pictures of gum disease and said now that you’ve had all this work you need to floss every day. I’ve stuck to it and have never forgot this dentist. He did it all for a discount.

    Mr. Zeldman have you considered working out a barter with a dentist? Or perhaps going to another country to get the work done, I’ve read of people doing this and saving a great deal of money.

  33. Hi You should consider going to see a homeopath, as a practicing one myself there are remedies to re-enamel teeth etc, (even though dentists will say there is no such thing….) If you would like, I can email you the names of some good ones in your area.

  34. I can relate. For a variety of reasons, if I could get away with going out in public with a bag over my head I would. Better yet, make that the whole body. Getting old doesn’t help at all.

  35. I do the exact same closed smile – I don’t let anyone see my teeth unless I can help it. Gets me down a lot of the time, but its good to hear others be open about it. Thanks Jeffrey.

  36. Long time reader, first time commenter…
    At first glance, I thought your post was going to talk about this:

    It is something my wife and I just started using on our kids. Give it a chance and perhaps it will work for you (and your fam).

  37. And probably it is really important to have good theet as a public speaker….


  38. There is an upside. Jowls convey gravitas. Smoke a pipe. Wear a tweed jacket. Before commenting, lean in. (Remove the pipe.) Say, “You know, this project would be so much better if the code only validated.” Don’t say much else; be scarce.

    As for the teeth, I have a similar problem. For all official images (Facebook, Fishermans Daily), I use a Photoshop mask with the appropriate adjustments. I am also trying to develop a photoshop mask that can be worn around town. I expect this invitation to save both you and the economy.

  39. Funny you should write about this as my husband feels the same exact way about his teeth…however, he blames the social care of England for his mouth.

    Yes, chaffed elbow is about all Mr. Pitt would seem to suffer from…bummer, really.

    Great post.

  40. I had a very similar problem at the same age circumstances- my solution was 10 implants – i replaced all my teeth in a year – results spectacular, natural, healthy.

    Top teeth 4 implants / titanium bar / removable bridge
    Bottom 6 implants permanent 3 piece bridge.

    Extractions 3K (Insurance paid)
    Implants 10K (1/2 price from Harvard Medical School MGH)
    Top appliance 7.5K
    Bottom 13K
    Office Visits: 2.25K

    * Notes Don’t bother if you are a smoker – implants have a high failure rate if you smoke.

    * Get good x-rays for bone density

  41. Say it with me, “It’s not your fault.”

    Well I’m catching up to 40 very fast and I’m seeing the design flaws in homo sapien. The most troubling to me is memory loss. I’ve always been the absent-minded professor type. Lots of information stored, but not readily available. Well the time to recover a memory has started to extend. Hopefully the endgame will involve blissful ignorance. :D

  42. My ankle has been hurting for the past X number of months. Finally went to see the doctor. She said it was arthritis.

    I said, “But it’s only the left ankle.”

    “Don’t worry,” she replied. “The other one will be coming along.”

  43. To be fair, Keith Richards has had false teeth since his mid-thirties so they’re actually looking pretty good these days. :)

  44. What is the ugliest part of your body? Some say your nose, some say your toes, but I think it’s your mind…. I hate your teeth too! But like your beanie.

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