Who’s Actually the Asshole?

My dentist is a great dentist. She makes my gums bleed with finesse while disparaging my brushing technique but patronizing my attempts at flossing. She’s adept at grinding my teeth down and filling them back up or gluing on new ones, and she’s an honest expert at starting complex conversations while both of her hands and many of her tools are shoved in my mouth.


Really, she’s an awesome dentist and that means something coming from a person who’s had a lifelong vendetta against the world of dentistry. However, she’s great when it comes to doing her job; not necessarily so when it comes to having human conversations (and it’s not just because she’s a dentist and asks me non-yes/no questions while her hands are massaging and/or stabbing my gums).

Case in point:

I had an appointment this afternoon to get a temporary crown ripped out and a permanent one cemented in. It was to be a quick appointment (tearing out fake teeth and gluing on new ones is apparently child’s play in the land of dentists) but I was nonetheless apprehensive – at my last appointment, she’d mentioned observing what she described as “the problem with the low-income” while playing with her daughter at a park near her house.

The “problem” was a father yelling at his five-year-old son to “get off that rock!” in a tone of voice that somehow conveyed to her that he was both poor as a person and a father. Also, based on the tone of voice SHE chose for her imitation of this man, he was probably black. And weighed, like, 400 pounds. Probably was also a gang member and lived off disability and smoked medical marijuana with his “homies” on the front step of his government-subsidized apartment building. At least, that’s what her tone of voice and facial expression conveyed to me about this man. Or about her perception of this man.

Again, I’m reading all of that from her imitation and there was a drill in my mouth so I’m not sure how much of my angst toward what she said had to do with my rattling skull.

I’m a good listener though, even when there are annoying noises around (especially when there are annoying noises around – I teach teenagers, all of their noises are annoying) and I’m also pretty good at discerning when a person’s prejudices are informing their interpretation of a situation. That said, you don’t have to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg to understand that “the problem with the low-income” is probably an observation founded on some weird misconceptions about the world.

She has her own dental practice, which she operates out of a very nice house-turned-office in a beautiful neighborhood in southern San Jose. It’s safe to say that she and I have led very different lives, and see the world in very different ways. Nonetheless, the conversation left a sour taste in my mouth (ha ha but really, get serious, this isn’t just about the jokes).

So, having had that experience at my last appointment – which was superb in terms of the dental services provided, so that’s something – I was feeling a little anxious about interacting with her again today. I tried pumping myself up on the way there with lots of really insightful and assertive retorts to any nature of offensive shit she might spew, but my passion was quickly deflated when I remembered that she’d have her hands in my mouth and it’d be pretty difficult to be articulate, let alone assertive, no matter how offended I was. I decided, therefore, to just keep my mouth shut.

Figuratively, of course.

It didn’t work though, because I’m awkward and because she’s blunt. Within 90 seconds of sitting in the chair, she said:

“I hope this doesn’t come off the wrong way, but every time I see you, you’re-” and then she made some hand motions that implied I’m skinnier now than I was last time she was an asshole to me with her hands in my mouth, which was a couple months ago.

This is not an uncommon thing for people who don’t know me very well to say to me. I am skinny and pretty much always have been. It’s worked out well for me throughout my life and I haven’t hard to work hard to maintain it, but I’m also not proud of it because my slender physique is a side-effect of Chron’s disease, which causes my weight to fluctuate based on how functional my intestines feel like being in any given moment. It sucks and is shitty, and the fact that I’m objectively attractive based on American standards of beauty isn’t really consolation for having constant acid reflux and terrible diarrhea more of the time than I’d like to quantitatively share.

When she “complimented” my thinness, I had a few quick choices to make. Since her hands weren’t yet in my mouth, my first thought was to barf out one of those rehearsed moments of assertiveness I’d practiced on the drive over, but as is the case with all rehearsed assertiveness, in the moment of truth it seemed a lot more appealing to bite my tongue than speak up – especially considering she was about to be very close to that tongue with some sharp tools and a drill.

My next thought was to scathingly inform her that I have Chron’s disease and that yes, I was thinner but it’s due to an extravagant amount of suffering and that yes, I am brave and strong and yes, she should feel bad for what she said.

But I like to believe that people are always trying their hardest to be their best selves, so I didn’t say or do any of that. I DID tell her that my weight fluctuations were an effect of Chron’s, but I did it in a tone of voice that (hopefully) wasn’t disdainful, and when she started to apologize I quickly said, “It’s OK – you didn’t know; most people don’t realize that’s how Chron’s works, anyway.”

Then, we had a civil – even kind – conversation about how hard it is to stay healthy and fit without worrying about things like the number on the scale. She asked how I manage my Chron’s, and I told her it’s mostly a matter of diet and exercise but that winter is generally a hard time for me because I don’t exercise as much, and end up sick – an skinny. She mentioned that she recently gained a few pounds and visited her doctor, who she was hoping would tell her it was her thyroid and “prescribe a pill or something to fix the problem.” So overall I didn’t change her world view, but I did perhaps provide a new framework for her approach to complimenting people’s bodies.

That, or she’s going to go to her doctor and ask if he can infect her with Chron’s. But I’m hoping for the former, because again: I’m terminally optimistic.

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