First of all, I hope that everyone is delighted to be done with finals! I know I had a rough time of it, and I am happy to be home in Florida; though yesterday I went to the beach for four hours with no sunscreen on my back (since my arms are short and stumpy, which leads to inadequate sunscreen application), and the resulting effect of the sun on my bottom was quite lobstery. If I had been thinking, I would have painted SHE-BOMB on my booty with sunscreen and taken a photo for this post, but I had just had my eyes dilated at the optometrist and all I could only think about the irony of being at the worst possible place in the world for dilation.
Before I embrace the summer and all it has to offer (for me, a 9-5 unpaid internship, a D.C. commute, and a new roommate), I would like to offer you a peek at the secret, archaic world of ORTHODONTISRY (I realize the word is ‘orthodontics’, but since the creation of this noun circumnavigates all English grammar rules, I refuse to use it), and a like-themed convention at which I spent my last 5 days.
Some background.: My family owns a screen printing, embroidery, and promotional products company. It was started by my grandfather 30 years ago, and grew in conjunction with my uncle’s orthodontics practice. Hence, orthodontics is a niche we have pursued in the promotional products industry, providing doctors, staff, and unfortunately-mechanized preteens with all sorts of fun things, like talking bobble pens and cups with their logos on them. Once a year we take our wares to the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) convention, set up a colorful booth between the guys selling electric tooth drills and the hippie middle-aged women displaying retainer stickers, and attempt to sledge-hammer the importance of marketing into the doctor’s skulls.
I suppose that most MD’s don’t have to market their practice to the public at large—if you need a hip replacement you are going to go to the hip person, and it is unlikely that there are a ton of options. Orthodontics is a growing field (it is just starting up abroad, and Austin Powers is no longer the standard for smiles in England). A straight grin is marketable to the everyman(or woman), and it is important in this day and age to give away free frisbees and shopping bags to your patient so as to WIN the regional advertising battle. With these generalizations in mind, let us analyze gender at the AAO.
The conference schematic went something like this: Doctors (male), followed either by a trophy wife or a harem of assistants (female—either very old or very young and hot) would amble aimlessly up and down the exhibition rows (displaying everything from doctor’s chairs to overhead lighting to brackets) searching for nothing in particular. Or, if they were a short fat Nepeoleon from New Jersey, they would hit on my sister, haggle with me to get the sale price under the table (I definitely look like I’m 15 so I don’t know what they were thinking), speak to me pedantically about things they know nothing about (successful advertisement), and walk away with a pompous wink. Then there were the foreigners. I am all about embracing other cultures—in fact, that is what I like to do most in the world, but the foreigners at the trade show a) didn’t speak English so I couldn’t sell them anything, b) hit on my sister, c) wouldn’t buy anything anyway because of the shipping costs, and d) asked for free samples relentlessly. It was often difficult to interact with them, especially with the advance knowledge of the non-business they would bring. Nevertheless, it is always exhilarating to hear an Australian talk, and I was happy to engage with them (and the beautiful Italian students, of course).
Now, gentle readers, let us take a closer look at the gender imbalance. For some reason, orthodontics is a field drastically underrepresented by women, and seems to place an unfair stigma on the doctor-assistant relationship. I found that many of the orthodontic students (marked by special purple badges) were females, especially international students, which indicates the increase of women in powerful, profitable occupations around the world. However, the doctors were almost all male, and they even used their wives and staff as meerkat sentries to scope out the exhibition scene while they went to lectures and meetings. A lot of these wives had the blue ‘doctor’ badges, but you could just tell that they were not MD’s—mostly through the 12 gold rings on their fingers, the 4-inch heels, and the fake tan. Forgive me if I am jumping to conclusions, but part of this experience for me was facing my own gender stereotypes, and finding myself disbelieving that any woman with a ‘doctor’ badge was actually an orthodontist (because of the way they interacted with me and carried themselves). There were a few with the ‘soccer mom’ look that were definitely medical professionals, but for the most part there was an eerie divide between the working women and the trophy wives (or trophy assistants, for that matter). The assistants were 100% women—not a man in the bunch. Like nursing, the ‘assistant’ position in orthodontics has continued to be dominated by young hotties and old-timers.
The general layout for the conference and for the industry in general seems to be man-lead, woman-follow, a model that is all the more unsettling because of its high income bracket. Why don’t more women want to be orthodontists, and why do men shy away from occupations titled “assistant”? Maybe I noticed it more because I was trying to sell them something, so I had to quickly decide what bracket to put them in to determine their usefulness. Either way, both my impression and the effect of this industry on forming gender identities for young women (because most of the assistants/technicians were in their low-mid 20s) are bad, and tell us something about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. Our society can’t simply open doors for women in more white-collar jobs, we need to reeducate both sexes to reject the stone-age model that men can not assist. Both men and women can drill into people’s skulls. But both men and women can answer phones and hold tools too.
As an occupation of the upper-middle class that has the power to transform gender identities from above, orthodontics is doing A BAD JOB. SHAME. DO BETTER!