Heidi Emmerling Jones, RDH, BS
Every time I see supermodel Rachel Hunter I feel a pang of jealousy. For starters, she is Mrs. Rod Stewart. She can hear him sing Maggie May, Hot Legs, and Twistin` the Night Away live, anytime she wants. And she`s gorgeous. The producers of the goods she promotes know that we consumers feel an implied promise that, if only we buy the cosmetics, the hair conditioner, the exercise video, the pantyhose with built-in girdles, we might come a little closer to matching society`s idea of beautiful. Rod Stewart himself describes his fantasy woman as "...everything a woman should be - tall, blonde, breathtaking, with the most fantastic legs."
However, contrary to what the media portrays, the majority of American women sport a size 12 or larger. Yet, we are still being made to feel we must conform to the ideal. I comply by continuing to buy Rod Stewart`s music despite his chauvinism. We buy diet books and girdles to make us smaller, to mold us, making us look just how we`re supposed to. We ignore the consequences: anorexia and bulimia from dieting; painful welts from girdles.
Like girdles shape our bodies, language molds our thoughts and behavior. Those in power try to keep the upper hand by diminishing others. One method is via labeling. And this happens in the dental office.
Still occurring (but hopefully happening less frequently) is the custom of dentists referring to hygienists as "their girls." Using this subservient term is not only an inappropriate term for an adult, but it definitely undermines the status of a licensed, educated professional. One could only imagine the reaction if a female hygienist referred to the male dentist as "her boy."
One for all, all for the team
Next, consider the term, "team player." Okay, we all want to be viewed as professionals and be treated accordingly. And team membership has some implications of equality. Hygienists and dentists contribute to the overall health of patients by providing quality care. Hygienists provide preventive and nonsurgical periodontal care for the patient. Dentists provide the restorative, reconstructive, and surgical care. In this sense, being part of the dental team is appropriate.
But let`s be honest here. Despite dentists demanding that hygienists be more like team players, they do not refer to the preceding ideal. Most dentists feel teams work best when the dentist is the team leader. This means that some members of the team (dentists) are more equal than others (everyone else).
Unconditional loyalty to, uh, cleaning toilets?
Many dentists use their power to demand of other team members unconditional commitment to office profitability. Sometimes this entails hygienists performing janitorial duties. Is it more cost-effective to have a hygienist scrub toilets than provide patient care? I still can`t figure this one out. But I guess team players aren`t supposed to question it.
This unconditional commitment often puts hygienists in a position of choosing between ethics, health, and families, or the job. What? You refuse to do a prophy on Mr. Smith because he forgot to take his premedication? You insist that your employer be OSHA-compliant? It bothers you to stay late because of so-called child care concerns? According to all too many dentists, true team players are required to choose the job over all else.
This over-used euphemism has gone unexamined too long. I suppose this is because the term sounds so "right" that we buy into it. We want to adapt to the mold even though it really doesn`t fit our situation. It tricks us into thinking we are equal but, in reality, we are being diminished to subordinates with this term. And, in a male/dentist devised system for societal relationships in a dental office, women/hygienists are deemed "good" only if we are nurturing and other-related (dentist/profit related, for example).
Ironically dentists use the term "team player" and its antonym "prima donna" as a means to disassociate hygienists, tokenism if you will. It`s a tactic to praise hygienists for passive behavior and thinking like a team player. It`s an attempt to lead some hygienists to see themselves as different from other hygienists, different from those radical "prima donnas." Yet, these "good" team-player hygienists are never allowed to be insiders (while a hygienist may strive for team membership, she will never be a team leader).
So what is a prima donna really? In the dental office, "prima donna" is meant to be synonymous with "superstar" and, in the unique dental office culture "superstars" have no place on a "team." Hygienists acquire the label by insisting on appropriate patient care, proper sterilization methods, adequate scheduling, etc. In short, we acquire the label by showing our strength and intelligence. The threat of the undesirable "prima donna" epithet is an attempt to preserve the team mantra and silence us. By avoiding this term at all costs, we alter our behavior, mold it into that of a subordinate, subservient employee.
In settings outside the dental office, we applaud superstars. To stick with the sports analogy favored by dentists, who would even think of kicking Michael Jordan off the team for being such a showoff? I wonder how many toilets he scrubs after the big game? And was Kristi Yamaguchi`s excellence on the ice, the hallmark of a prima donna dancer or superstar, a detriment to the 1992 U.S. Olympic team? I think not. And, yet, Kristi`s father is a dentist. He said of his famous daughter, "Kristi`s not much at washing dishes."
Despite the huge number of skinny models, the number of "real" sized women is creating a demand for "real" sized clothes and "real" sized models. I am thrilled to see the success of Emme, a very attractive, successful size fourteen model who made People magazine`s "most beautiful people" list.
Language should fit us like a well-made garment (even size 12+). But some language and labeling are like ill fitting girdles; some are like dresses that are too tight - fine for others, but not for us.
So does all this mean that we are forever doomed to be molded by this language girdle? Absolutely not. If these conventions were purposely constructed, and I maintain they were, they can also be de- and re-constructed. Screams of protests from dentists to the effect that language change is ugly, trivial, and divisive make it clear that we can impact culture to a point where our critique can no longer be ignored. We can insist that the rules of the entire language game be changed.
In this election year, I`m reminded of women suffragists: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary A. Livermore, Lydia Maria Child, Grace Greenwood, and Susan B. Anthony. Sorry Rod and Rachel. I believe I`ve found new role models - those who expand the boundaries, those who challenge and shatter inappropriate societal molds. They not only change the way they view themselves, they forever change the way others view them.
Heidi Emmerling Jones, RDH, BS, is a consulting editor for RDH and practices dental hygiene in Sparks, Nevada.