Sometimes when I’m bored and have neglected to tote some reading material—like when I’m standing in line at the supermarket, or waiting for a movie to begin—I indulge in a debate I have with myself: Which do I dislike more: a visit to the dentist, or a visit to the gynecologist?
Both require me to grant access to the dark and private parts of my body that I’d rather keep classified—at least, to all but a privileged few. You might think that men can’t grok that dilemma, but my friend David suggests that the equivalent procedure for men would be a prostate exam. I’ve never had one, but—although I don’t like to—I can imagine.
I admit that I don’t like the physical exposure, the act of opening wide for strangers. Intellectually, I know there’s nothing truly intimate going on. But, still, it feels weird.
What’s more: I dread the way that the folks trained to do business there seem to regard those nooks as a kind of porthole to my life. They read them in the way a palm reader studies your upturned hand. “So you drink coffee,” my dentist might say, using his sharp pick to muck the crannies between my teeth.
Some days, I persuade myself that I dislike visiting my dentist more. Maybe it’s because those visits take longer, and I go twice as often. Or maybe it’s because dentists seem to have impossibly high standards for oral hygiene. I can spend hours working over my teeth, investing in all kinds of creams and polishes, but still I could be scrubbing harder, brushing longer, flossing more deeply beneath the gum line.
If you try to follow their advice to the letter, you are doomed to screw it up, it seems. It reminds me of a college copyediting class that tried to school us in the arcane, but exacting, rules of grammar. Unfortunately, I was always placing a colon in a sentence that demanded a semi-colon, or italicizing a bit of text that required underlining, or getting confused about whether a subordinate clause should be separated by commas or left flailing, on its own, desperately seeking its modifier. There is little nuance to copyediting—and I found it maddening and exasperating. In copyediting—and in dentistry, apparently—there is a right way, or a wrong way, but never a way that’s simply “good enough.”
“You are brushing too hard,” my dentist told me the last time I was lying supine in his exam room. “You need to find a softer brush… and try brushing in small circles. Not like this…” he said, sawing aggressively in the air as if hacking at a particularly stubborn oak limb, “…but like this,” he explained, drawing tight, small circles in front of my nose, gripping a pretend toothbrush with long, deliberate fingers.
During that visit, I was taken aback when he handed me a hand mirror and then, with a gloved hand, exposed the soft tissue beneath my bottom teeth to point out a few vulnerable spots at my gum line. I nodded mutely, the taste of latex in my mouth. And I couldn’t help but think that this particular maneuver—training a mirror on the more tender bits of the cavity—was something that my gynecologist had never, ever done.
If this were truly a debate, I decide, that would be the closing argument, and perhaps the clincher.
My debate has always been a private one. But since my annual exam at the gynecologist was coming up, I wondered how my gynecologist, who is a woman, would weigh in. So when she walked into the small examination room where I was waiting, half undressed, the other day, I steered the conversation in that direction. The doctor is about my age, and as we talked she tapped at icons on my digital chart with a stylus.
“You know who has a really weird job?” she asked, suddenly looking up. “Mammographers.” All day they lurk in small, dark rooms, painfully manipulating breasts into awkward positions, and then photographing them as they’re flattened. “One after another, all day long. Can you imagine?” she said.
I couldn’t. But then again, I said, I couldn’t imagine her job, either… one after another, all day long.
I mentioned my dentist-versus-gynecologist debate, and she said matter-of-factly, “Oh yes, I hear that all the time.” Some of the tools that dentists and gynecologists use are the same, in fact, she pointed out. The instrument that a dentist uses to numb someone’s gum is the same instrument she uses to numb a cervix, she said, and often the mix of anesthetic is the same, too. Once, she said, when she couldn’t find her own tools, she borrowed them from a nearby dentist.
That raised all kinds of questions in my mind, but I didn’t ask them. I was too busy being amazed that her other patients had made the same comparison. It’s nice to hit a nerve, I guess, but I liked the idea more when I thought it was original and completely mine. It reminded me of when I was 13 and wrote a long, narrative poem about the heroic struggles of a tiny family that lived under a mushroom. I thought I had invented the concept of the epic poem. But then I got to 9th grade and read Beowulf. Suddenly, both my story and I were stupid, small, and ordinary.
I never did get an answer out of my doctor, so I don’t know where she would come down in the dentist-versus-gynecologist debate. But an ongoing poll I stumbled on at fitsugar says most women would rather go to the dentist (57 percent) than the gynecologist (43 percent).
In a way, I pity both the dentists and the gynecologists among us, and maybe now mammographers and proctologists, too. I wonder how they drag themselves out of bed each morning, having invested so much time and money in a career that sets them off each day to meet one-on-one with people who wish they were anyplace other than sitting, exposed, in their exam rooms.
In my mind, a dentist or gynecologist is like a tax preparer or divorce attorney—they are professionals no one ever really wants to hire, but sometimes must. But maybe dentists and gynecologists are more like garbage men: When we imagine our world without them, we are very, very grateful they exist.
So where does your preference lie in this debate? The dentist’s chair or the gynecologist’s/proctologist’s table?