In a matter of days U.S. Olympic skater Ashley Wagner became a household name – but not for brining home the gold in the women’s short program of the team competition as she had hoped.
Instead, her name, or rather, her face, has become synonymous with two extreme expressions as she was at first pleased by her performance, smiling and blowing kisses to the audience, then dismayed by the judge’s results. In less than a week, thanks to the wonders of social media and humanity’s not-so-nice tendency toward pack mentality, Ms. Wagner’s face has unfortunately become something of a punch line.
Her clearly aggravated expression has been plastered on hundreds of news websites and video of her reaction (which seems to suggest she’s mouthing an expletive) fills entire pages of YouTube searches. Most embarrassing is that her face has been turned into a meme – popping up across the web. A simple Google search returns 6.4 million hits. For my uniformed readers, a meme, according to dictionary.com, is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” While the Merriam-Webster dictionary says the term has been in use since 1976, the Internet has revolutionized its popularity. Now memes are part of videos, animations, and pretty much anything else created in the digital realm.
“I know roughly when I skate a good program where the score should end up. So to score that low was very disappointing for me,” Wagner said, in a CNN article, explaining her reaction.
Pearly Whites? Pricey Teeth?
Inappropriate humor and excessive news coverage aside, as an implant dentist, I couldn’t help but notice something else about Ms. Wagner’s multifaceted expressions. Ms. Wagner, at least based on video and photographic footage, appears to have an exquisite set of upper jaw teeth. Her central and lateral maxillary incisors are a bright white, while her maxillary gingiva (upper gum) is a seemingly healthy pink.
Wager’s expressions – and her teeth – got me thinking about modern dentistry in Russia and developing nations throughout the world. While the health and cosmetic benefits of implant dentistry is increasingly recognized in the United States, other parts of the world lag. Encouragingly, Russia, which has experienced more than a decade of robust growth, is embracing the importance of a healthy mouth. Especially in cities like Moscow, oral hygiene is well publicized and imported brands like Colgate, Aquafresh and Rembrandt toothpaste stock pharmacy shelves, costing $14-$19, as of 2007.
In 1991, by contrast, the average 35-year-old Russian had 12-14 cavities, fillings or missing teeth. In Soviet times toothbrushes were shared within families and dental floss was an oddity. Even in 1994 the average Russian 12-year-old in the city of Voronezh (690 miles due north of Sochi) had nearly four cavities. By 2004, thanks to an aggressive fluoridation program, that figure had fallen to 1.5 cavities.
Other nations have further to go. India, for instance, suffers with some of the world’s worst oral hygiene. According to a 2011 nationwide AC Nielsen survey, 76 percent of dentists believe the country smiles less due to poor dental habits. That said, the country continues to graduate large numbers of dentists (around 13,500 per year) and at least in urban areas, dentist-to-patient ratios have risen from 1:300,000 in the 1960s to approximately 1:10,000 today.
Globally, oral hygiene remains a significant public health challenge as the World Health Organization estimates 5 billion people suffer from cavities. It’s interesting to note, though, that it’s middle-income countries – not the poorest nations – with the highest incidence of cavities.
Turning that Frown Upside Down
So rather than turning Ashley Wagner’s smile – or frown – into the butt of jokes, we should join her supporters and applaud her grit and determination, and of course, appreciate the overwhelming emotions magnifying the entire Olympic experience. It really is the opportunity of a lifetime. At 22, she did more than enough to advance the U.S. skating team.
While I stress that I’ve never given Ms. Wagner an oral examination, and am only relying on the images we’ve all seen, Wagner’s mouth appears healthy. Assuming that is the case, her healthy smile should serve as additional inspiration for the world’s athletes – and their nations’ supporters, that striving for the oral health Olympic gold, is a goal we should all aim for, whether we’re in Sochi, Russia, or anywhere else.