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The untold impact of poor oral health on self-esteem

by BecSorby (follow)
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Author: Dr Merrilyn Hooley

It’s only human to feel self-conscious about the way we present ourselves and be concerned about our appearance. Because the mouth and teeth are such ‘front and centre’ features, the way they look can have a huge impact on our overall appearance, and, more importantly, our confidence in our appearance.

Poor oral health can really get in the way of a person’s quality of life as it can have a significant impact on self-esteem and self-confidence. Someone who doesn’t like the way their teeth look might avoid smiling, eating in front of others, or even talking to other people, which can all limit the quality of their social and professional relationships.

Another outcome of not smiling or talking to people is that a person can appear unapproachable, further isolating them and making opportunities for interaction even more limited. And we know that isolation – especially if long-term – can have a terrible effect on a person’s overall wellbeing.

Chasing that perfect ‘Insta-Smile’

Feeling self-conscious about your smile doesn’t just impact face-to-face interactions – recent research commissioned by the Oral Health Advisory Panel (OHAP) showed that the majority of Australians feel that a healthy smile is what most attracts them to a photo on social media (57%, well above hair at 25% and pose, at 21%).

Sadly, however, one third of respondents reported that they didn’t like the way their teeth looked, so never smiled in photos. In fact, more than 2 million Australians are not comfortable with how their teeth look.

As a professional, what is most frustrating about these findings is that looking after your teeth is really such a simple process. It’s tragic to think about the serious impact that poor oral health is having on the self-esteem of people of all ages.

Building self-esteem is a lifelong journey

Being concerned about the appearance of the mouth can start very early, from the time kids start to lose their first baby teeth. While some will be excited and proud to show off their toothless grin, others will feel self-conscious about the changes, refusing to smile or perhaps covering their mouth with their hands when they speak.

Although this period is short-lived for children, it can show them how important their teeth are for smiling, eating and talking. Using this time of heightened ‘tooth awareness’ to establish good oral health practices is a great investment in your child’s future.

Adolescence is another life stage when self-esteem can be particularly fragile. Teens are acutely concerned with what their peers think of them and will often make comparisons to measure their self-worth.

Teens may become fixated on achieving that perfect healthy, white, ‘kissable’ smile, wanting their teeth to be whitened or straightened (or both!).

Their growing independence may also make it more difficult to monitor their oral health routine. It is critical, however, to continue talking about oral health with your teen, as those with unhealthy gums, bad breath, plaque build-up or rotting teeth will very likely have a difficult time during this already challenging stage.

This period of a person’s development can have a life-long impact on their self-confidence, so helping them to avoid the pitfalls of poor oral health is critical. The quest for the perfect smile is not limited to adolescence of course, with more and more adults undergoing costly treatments to straighten, whiten and improve their smile. While the booming cosmetic dental industry is testament to the fact that people are prepared to spend a huge amount of money to achieve ‘perfect’ teeth, having healthy teeth and gums is really what most people find appealing. And that is not at all difficult to achieve.

Tips for maintaining good oral health

We all need to show respect for our teeth and establish good oral hygiene practices, modelling this behaviour for our children.

Help children to brush their teeth until they can manage it well themselves - around eight years old
Invest in an electric toothbrush if feasible
Brush for a purpose – concentrate on removing plaque, not just moving toothpaste around, and brush all surfaces on all teeth
Talk with your family about the effect of eating sweet, sticky and/or acidic foods on your teeth; make these ‘sometimes foods’ and only eat them at meal times (i.e. with other healthier foods)
Find a good dentist and make regular appointments for the whole family.

Maintaining a healthy mouth is a great investment in your overall quality of life and should be considered an essential part of your personal care routine.

About the Author:

Dr Merrilyn Hooley graduated as a Dental Therapist and worked for many years in public dentistry within the Victorian School Dental Service. She developed an interest in the ways individuals’ personalities and moods affected their response to dental treatment and began studying Psychology, eventually graduating with a PhD. Merrilyn now works as a senior lecturer in Psychology in the School of Psychology, Deakin University, Melbourne. Her research interests revolve around parenting and parent-child relationships and the ways these factors influence children’s health (dental health and obesity) and psychological outcomes. Merrilyn is also a founding member of the Oral Health Advisory Panel.

The Oral Health Advisory Panel (OHAP) is a group of independent healthcare professionals with the aim of raising awareness of the importance of good oral health and its impact on general wellness. The Panel aims to take oral health beyond the dental clinic.

Follow the Oral Health Advisory Panel via twitter @OHAPanel to stay up to date with practical advice on good oral health habits.

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