The value of good teeth - Transcripts

March 08, 2023

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As a kid, Ryanne Jones' friend accidentally hit her in the mouth with a hammer, knocking out her two front teeth. Her parents never had enough money for the dental care needed to fix them, so Ryanne lived much of her adult life with a chipped and crooked smile.

Ryanne spent a while as a single mom working low-wage jobs, but she had higher aspirations: she interviewed dozens of times a year for higher-paying roles that she was more than qualified for. But she never landed any of them. And to her, it really seemed like the only thing standing between her and a better job was her rotting, brown front teeth.

Our physical appearances can communicate a lot about our financial status. There are some things, such as clothing, that we have more control over. But there are other things that we don't — and they can have serious long-term economic consequences.

This episode was originally run as part of Marketplace's This is Uncomfortable podcast.

Reported by: Reema Khrais

Edited by: Micaela Blei.

Produced by: Zoë Saunders, Peter Balonon-Rosen, Megan Detrie, Hayley Hershman and Daniel Martinez. The Planet Money version was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry.

Mastered by: Charlton Thorp

Music: Wondery

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at


This is Planet Money from NPR. It was a sunny Saturday in Lubbock, Texas, when the accident happened. Rayanne Jones was 11 and had just watched

a soapbox derby race on TV. And of course, being 11, I got it into my head that we just had to build one

and maybe we'd push each other. Rayanne and her friend found this old vegetable crate and decided to put some wheels on it.

So they crouched down in her driveway, started pulling nails from the crate, and that's when Rayanne's friend smashed her

right in the face with a hammer. I tried to pull my face out of the way, and the hammer came up and the claw of the hammer took me up under my front teeth and then caught my lip and nose.

And it hurt so bad. Her friend broke one of her front teeth in half

and chipped the other. They laid down and my mouth was just watering so bad that I'm trying to scream, I'm trying to cry,

but I can't make any sound come out. As a kid, Rayanne was all about adventure, even if it meant getting a few bruises. Like when she was three, she jumped out of a treehouse just to see if she could fly. And instead of dolls, she preferred skateboards and skinned knees.

But this, this was a different kind of hurt. I couldn't even breathe with my mouth because it hurt. Like every little bit of air on it hurt. Oh my gosh. I remember this kid running across the lawn and he pounds on the door and he's yelling,

Mrs. Foltz, Mrs. Foltz, I killed Rayanne. Rayanne's mom, Mrs. Foltz, runs out

and rushes Rayanne to the dentist. He puts on something called a composite tooth and he told my mom that it was temporary. Okay. But I never went back.

Oh, you didn't? No. She was supposed to go back for a more permanent solution, but anything Rayanne needed for her teeth

never seemed to actually happen.

No, she grew up in a mining town. There was a lot of poverty and she says tooth decay was pretty common.

Filling cavities, getting braces, it always cost too much. When your parents told you that they couldn't afford braces and after you, you know, didn't really get that composite tooth fixed, did you start to piece together

your family's economic status? I already knew. We lost our house, so I knew that the bank had repossessed it. My grandparents had to buy me school clothes. I had a concept that,

braces must cost a lot more than school clothes then. But what Rayanne didn't know was just how much that one accident would follow her. For other kids, it may have just been another summer story. For Rayanne though, it had lifelong consequences. Hello, and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Rima Gresse.

And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Rima is joining us from a marketplace podcast called This Is Uncomfortable. It is a show about all of the ways that money can mess with our lives. And today we are passing the mic over to her to share a story about what our physical appearances

can say about our class status. Yeah, there are some things about the way we look that we have some control over, you know, our clothes, our style. But then there are things that are just too expensive to change. Today on the show, the financial consequences of one woman's smile. Growing up, Rayanne moved around a lot and money was always tight. Her dad worked in maintenance and her mom was a health aide.

They fought a lot. Back then, it seemed like the more poor we got, the worse they, like they didn't fight in front of us,

but we knew they fought. Rayanne decided her life would be different. She was gonna get a good job

and leave all the fights and money troubles behind. I wanted somewhere that would give me a place to live that I would know would always be there. Clothing to wear, food to eat,

and money on top of that sounded awesome. So for Rayanne, the Navy made a lot of sense. When she was 18, she enlisted in a program to become an officer. When she got to boot camp, right off the bat, she knew appearances were super important. Her uniform had to be crisp, her bed always tightly made, and like the other cadets, her hair cut short.

And I just asked the woman that was doing it, what's the shortest you can cut it? And she said an inch, and I said an inch, please.

If Rayanne's short brown hair was the first thing you noticed, her teeth were probably second. The composite tooth from the accident had pretty much worn away. Her other teeth were crooked with gaps and chips. But the Navy had a solution.

They take everybody in for like a full dental exam. The people who had problems all get sent back to the clinic to start the work. And did you have problems?

Oh, definitely. Yeah, her results were not pretty. On top of broken teeth, others were rotting and full of cavities. But they told her, do not worry, we're going to replace all of them. And for Rayanne, this was huge, finally an opportunity to fix her teeth. They took off her composite tooth, leaving it a stump to the operation. Then right before the operation, during training,

Rayanne dislocated her shoulder. And then they sent me home as medically unfit for service. Oh, wow. And they never fixed the tooth.

Oh, wow. They never fixed the tooth. She was devastated. And it wasn't just because of her teeth. The Navy had felt like this big solution, away out of poverty.

Oh. And now I wasn't going to have that anymore. And I blamed it on me.

I felt like I personally had failed. And in a way, the Navy had screwed up her teeth even more. They never replaced the composite tooth. So all she had was that stump.

Now I've got like two thirds of a front tooth.

If I smiled, you saw it. Rayanne was 18 when she got discharged. And she felt lost. Her dreams of becoming this proud, regimented officer were replaced with hourly shifts in warehouses,

fast food joints, and call centers. At that age, people would have seen me as maybe a scruffy punk kid. A lot of torn up jeans and Doc Martin boots

and a Metallica t-shirt. Rayanne was still set on getting a better job. So she applied to any position she could find, even if it just paid a dollar more. Eventually, she landed a job in tech support,

but it still barely paid the bills. I did have one lady ask me once at like some bus stop, why don't you get the money to fix your teeth? And I just looked at her and said, from where?

I was like, that's so rude. By the time Rayanne was 21, something in her shifted. She was scared to smile when she met new people. When she laughed, she covered her teeth. In pictures, always a tight grin, never an open smile. Her mouth felt like a billboard that screamed, hey, I am too poor to fix my teeth. Fixing them would cost as much as $3,000, money she just didn't have. And asking her family for help felt out of the question. And soon, Rayanne had new responsibilities. She had a son. She was a single mom making $9 an hour in desperate need of a higher paying job.

And then I started going to interviews for better jobs, more professional jobs, tech support type things

and IT industry things. Rayanne kept her perfectly iron slacks and her tailored blouse in the closet till interview day, you know, just to avoid wrinkles. She'd practice answering interview questions in her head.

Keep your head up, look like you're confident, but keep your chin down a little so you don't look like you're arrogant.

She looked good, felt good, and she was really good in the interview room. She'd vibe with the interviewer,

feel like they were really getting along. And then suddenly they would get awkward again. There would be that stiff we're not clicking. And I didn't understand why. And then were you getting any of these jobs? No, the year my son was born, I went to over 30 interviews.

Interview after interview, things would start off really well. Then out of nowhere, she could just feel the air get sucked out of the room.

But she had no idea why. I asked some of my friends, some of my friends that got jobs in those places. What would they tell you? Some of my friends that got the job instead of me. And they're like, I don't know. You've got all the skills, you have more skills than I do.

You're friendlier than I am. What would they tell you?

Some of my friends, maybe that's it. Maybe I'm too friendly.

But then it finally hit Ryan, the exact moment when things would shift.

And I realized it's when we start joking. That's when I smiled. That's when I relaxed and really smiled.

Crap, it's my teeth. Yeah, she wasn't positive, but it seemed when the interviewer saw her brown, rotting teeth, everything went south. At that point, her two front teeth had gotten really bad.

Yeah. You could see the brown stump of what the tooth had been. And then the other one was probably almost half gone. So would you consciously tell yourself to not smile? So I tried that, and then I wouldn't smile the whole interview. And it didn't,

they just were awkward like the whole time.

So then what happens?

Well, then was the Motorola interview. This interview is hard to forget. Ryan felt like she was a shoo-in for this job. She was overqualified. A friend had even recommended her to the boss. But like always, she didn't get it.

So she got her friend to ask, what happened? And the response to him was, she's really thin and have you seen her teeth? You know, they thought that I was a meth addict and they weren't going to hire a meth addict. He said that. He did, he said that to my friend. Hearing those words, it stung. I remember my face felt like really warm. It was definitely a shame. And then I was like really angry at this guy that I'd interviewed with.

Here was cold heart evidence that just glancing at her teeth led this guy to make all these other stereotypes associated with being poor.

Like that Ryan was dirty or on drugs. When my friend told me that I was mad for a moment

and then realized I would have assumed the same thing.

Oh, really? Yeah. And that's when I decided I absolutely have to figure out

how to get these teeth fixed.

That's after the break. Hey, Jeff Guo here. Maybe you heard our recent story, Meow Money Meow Problems. It's about a small town where stray cats were bequeathed hundreds of thousands of dollars

in a charitable trust. Who's this? Death Bandit.

Now you can go behind the scenes of our reporting and production process in our recent bonus episode.

There is this deep mystery embedded what happened to all this money.

It doesn't just vanish. That episode is available now for Planet Money Plus supporters. If that's not you, it could be. Check out the link in our episode notes.

Ryan finally had a concrete answer for why she couldn't land a job. And she felt like the only solution was to fix her teeth. So she slowly started saving up for that, putting away 30, $40 here and there. But whenever she had any amount saved, all of a sudden she'd need money for something else, like daycare, groceries, or a visit to her son's dentist. She was pretty determined to do what her parents hadn't done for her.

If it meant that I barely ate for a week, that kid went to his yearly checkup. Oh, wow. I'm his parent. It's my job to make sure he's an adult

on the best footing he can start it on. Oh, wow. I mean, it sounds like you realized at that point just how much it can impact your wellbeing, essentially.

Right, right. Like how much it can keep you poor. I don't want my kid to be poor. Nobody poor wants their kid to be poor. Nobody rich wants their kid to be poor.

Right. And there are actually studies about this. Like one study from the American Dental Association found that nearly one in three low-income adults say their teeth make it hard to interview for jobs. And then there's this other study I found pretty interesting. Out of a thousand people, more than half said they think people with straight teeth are more successful or wealthy, and that they're more likely than people with crooked teeth to land the same job. So basically for a lot of people, straight teeth equals success.

Growing up, everybody I've ever known with bad teeth was poor. Everybody that had money had good teeth. Like it was a reality.

By the time Ryanne was in her mid-20s, she'd been laid off from her job and was living on public assistance. And in Arizona, where she lived at the time, Medicaid didn't cover everyday adult dental work, which, by the way, is still the case in most states. Then one day, Ryanne learned something surprising. It was about her dad. He also had bad teeth, but he was finally getting them pulled and replaced with a denture. Even though they didn't talk much, she called him up.

I was kind of jealous. Yeah? He was very happy for my dad, but also why can't I have that? And part of me, why couldn't you help me have better teeth when I was a kid? You feel resentful.

Yeah, yeah, a bit. But Ryanne didn't say that to her dad. She told him she was happy for him and that she was actually putting away money to fix her teeth, too. And even though she thought she was playing it cool, hiding how she really felt, her dad must have picked up on something. Because a few months later,

he called her back with news that would change everything. He calls me one day and like just tells me this whole thing. You know, you need to get your teeth fixed. And at first, I'm gonna flare up, right? Yeah, how am I supposed to do that? Yeah. But before I can, he finishes.

So I talked to your grandma.

Yeah. And I have a $2,500 check here. I already talked to the denture place. They said $2,500 will cover all of it.

Let's get this done. Ryanne could hardly believe it. Her grandmother was going to foot the $2,500 bill and she had to pay back $100 at a time. Ryanne just had one question.

How soon can we do it? Hang on. And then thank you, dad, right? Right, right. The first thought was, let's get this done. Great, when?

And they thank you so much, dad. And of course, she immediately called her grandma

to thank her. And I was definitely crying. Like I can feel myself tearing up right now a little bit over it actually.

What, why is that?

A little bit over it actually. This is my chance up. So like look in a mirror and smile and not feel bad about how I look. This is my chance to maybe get this better job. Right. And this is a chance for me to provide

a decent life for my kid. It was a hot, sunny day when Ryanne went in for the operation. She listened to the Dave Matthews Band as they replaced her broken teeth with a gleaming acrylic denture. It took a little over an hour.

Ryanne could not wait to get home. The first thing I did was just like walk in my bathroom and look in the mirror and smile. And like cry. You cried. And smile while I was crying. And then I went and my friend was babysitting my son. So I go bug him in his bedroom. Hey, Joram, look. And I smile. And he's like, you're like a shark. You got new teeth.


She smiled so much that day that her cheeks actually hurt. I smiled so much that my front teeth would get dry and my lip would drag closing my mouth.

I like distinctly remember that. I remember that. Wow.

Did you almost like not recognize yourself? No, it was more like this was me. Hmm. Like I'd been licking for years in a mirror at somebody that wasn't quite me. And this was me. Wow.

Like I was finally recognizing myself again. Her teeth felt like a fresh start. So when the tech industry crashed in Phoenix, Ryanne decided to move back to North Idaho where she was born. In this time, when she went in for a job interview,

it felt different. I went in for the interview. I had the skills they needed. They mentioned I was overqualified. My response was that means I absolutely know what I'm doing then. But there's that little bit of cockiness. There's that flashing the smile at them. There's that being more charming

than I had been in previous interviews. Ryanne got a call the next day. She got the job.

With her new denture, people seemed warmer, more accepting. I could smile whenever I wanted. And in a lot of ways, it changed how people reacted to me,

which changed how I saw myself. It's been 19 years since the operation. In that time, she worked her way up the corporate ladder and became an IT engineer, finally getting that good job she dreamed of as a kid. And maybe she would have gotten there if she didn't fix her teeth. But in her mind, she owes it to the operation and to her newfound confidence. That said, it hasn't all been perfect. Sometimes her denture can feel like this dirty secret.

My husband, we have known each other 10 years. You know how many times he's seen me with my denture out? How many? Once. And I had that thing back in my mouth within a moment. I have to brush them thoroughly, take them out and brush them. I don't do that when he's around. I'll make him leave the bathroom.

I feel awkward and embarrassed. I was pretty surprised that she still felt embarrassed by her teeth decades later in her most intimate relationship. But then she told me how she makes sense of it.

Honestly, I think maybe good teeth is the standard and not having that signifies the opposite things. It's not that having good teeth signifies you're a good person,

but having bad teeth says bad things about you. Even Ryan has found herself classifying people the same way.

Like with this old coworker. So I meet him my first day as a coworker of his. And I know that this job doesn't pay massively, but it pays okay and we have dental insurance and his front teeth are really dark. And I remember, you know, meeting him, liking him, but also thinking, dude, why have you not fixed your teeth?

But you didn't find yourself having those thoughts

before your teeth were fixed. I think I did. Like, I feel like I did judge other people

and that meant I also was judging myself. Society tells us being poor is bad or that you're to blame. And even though Ryan had lived through these circumstances herself, those messages are so strong that she'd internalize them. How do you think you would feel if your husband or your closest friends saw you for like a day

without your dentures? I'd get over it, but at first it would be hard. Like I would not smile for sure and I would not be talking to them. So I'm gonna do a thing here.

This is like the max amount of adrenaline.

Oh, you're taking them off. This is what I sound like with them out. You are not likely to hear me speak to people with them out unless I absolutely have to in emergency. And that's the longest I've had those out since I was 25.

Decades later, Ryan still has stress dreams

about having bad teeth. I have this emotional attachment to good teeth and the thought of not having them again, it scares me actually, because it would be reverting to that past Ryan who was young and not doing really well in life. I don't wanna be her again. I appreciate her. She worked hard.

She was a good person, but I don't wanna be her. She tells me about the first job interview she had after getting new teeth. She fondly thinks back on it and how the interviewer stopped her on the way out.

She actually says, with no hesitation, you have wonderful teeth. You have a great smile. Well, I walked out of there. I floated out of there. I did not walk. I just told her, thank you.

There was a lot of work involved. I keep thinking about what Ryan said about how society sees good teeth as the norm. It's what's expected. I think she's right, but that's also deeply frustrating that she felt like the only way she can move up and be accepted was by quote-unquote fixing herself. That's because bad teeth aren't usually seen as a reflection of larger issues like poverty or inequalities in dental access. It's often very personal, like it's your fault. And the result is that every day we make snap judgments of people based on these ideas, ideas that are incredibly flawed and full of biases, like what someone's smile says about their worth.

That was Rima Kreis from the Marketplace podcast, This Is Uncomfortable. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out their feed for more stories about life and how money messes with it. This episode of This Is Uncomfortable was produced by Peter Balanan-Rosen and hosted by Rima Kreis. Peter and Rima wrote the episode together. It was edited by Michaela Bly with additional production support from Megan Dietri, Hailey Hirschman and Daniel Martinez. The episode was mixed by Charlton Thorpe. This Is Uncomfortable senior producer is Zoe Sanders and Bridget Bodner is Marketplace's director of podcasts. And their theme music is by Wonderly. The Planet Money version was produced by Alyssa John Perry and engineered by Robert Rodriguez. I'm Sarah Gonzalez, this is NPR, thanks for listening.

But it's weird, because occasionally when I listen to Dave Matthews, I do think of dental work.