Fortified by two glasses of brandy and the company of friends, YouTube user DaveT sits in a kitchen about to perform a homespun "procedure" on the tooth which has been troubling him for over a week. He places the pliers in his mouth. He takes another drink, unable to face it. Dave is going to have to "shove it down and pull it out," a woman's voice says off-screen, while another hand holding a phone swings into shot, recording video. The process is agonisingly drawn out—you feel every second of the clip's four minutes pass.
Type "DIY dentistry" into YouTube and you get about 11,700 results. "DIY teeth scaling" alone yields 1,000, some of which are for dogs but most for humans. Their titles range from tentative and unambitious ("Trying to fix tooth") to blithely confident ("DENTISTS HATE THIS VIDEO"). They are biohacking at entry level, or maker culture at its most extreme. They are One Weird Tip brought to life.
The videos I watched while writing this piece combine the surreal and grotesque with the oddly familiar, a quality which renders them perhaps more disturbing than any of the car crash footage or freak CCTV deaths which make up YouTube's mondo subculture. Watching them requires a strong stomach and frequent interludes of kitten videos. We are all born with teeth in our mouths, after all, and watching these videos makes us painfully aware of them. The tooth extractions are hard to watch, the wisdom tooth extractions harder still.
It feels inevitable that these people will end up back in the dentist's chair sooner rather than later.
Many of the dentistry DIY instructionals and videos found on forums and YouTube allude to the fear of dentists (odontophobia), and offer home procedures as an alternative. Yet these videos propagate fresh dental horror—it's hard not to recoil in horror at this man applying children's crafting clay FIMO and Gorilla Glue to his mouth, or this man replacing a filling with DIY store adhesive, or this man pulling a molar from his gums with vise grips (men seem the most likely to take pliers and power tools to their own mouths in the name of healthcare).
For all their resourcefulness, it feels inevitable that these people will end up back in the dentist's chair sooner rather than later. Comments on the YouTube videos are telling: They devolve into arguments between supporters who say they're going to try the same, grossed-out disbelieving bystanders, and people claiming to be dental professionals who warn against trying this at home. Occasionally there are tales of attempts gone horribly wrong.
As with any vaguely anti-establishment practise (if only anti-dental-establishment), DIY dentistry has been duly hijacked by conspiracy theorists, spawning a knowledge economy where posts on the specifics of periodontal debridement sit alongside warnings of Big Pharma. Anti-fluoride campaigners are a natural fit. Alternative health advocates promote the idea of "regrowing teeth" with a combination of comfrey root and organic egg shells blended into daily smoothies (your gums might still hurt, but you will be distracted by the contortions of your gut..).
And of course DIY dentistry is a favourite topic for apocalypse preppers. Prepper manual Where There Is No Dentist is popular, along with Dentek home filling materials sold on Amazon, and even professional tools sourced online, with the excuse that in a SHTF ("shit hits the fan") situation, dental qualifications will no longer matter.
The dentist becomes a comic book villain in these posts, a symbol of greed acting as vector for the prepper's rabid distrust of institutions in general. Such sites elevate crowdsourced advice to the level of life and death, where trust in strangers overrules advice given by professionals.
But DIY dentistry finds its most unlikely champions in a more mainstream part of YouTube: the community of teenage, predominantly female beauty bloggers who create their own DIY tooth-straightening experiments. The practise is widespread, enough to have been covered by ABC News. Videos where vloggers straighten their teeth with hair elastic because their parents can't afford braces catapult me back to being very young and very paranoid, where braces were aspirational and a symbol of affluence among peers, and where I would perhaps have been vulnerable enough to try the advice offered in these videos.
The creators of these clips look barely old enough to have YouTube accounts: some don't even want straightened teeth, only the appearance of braces as an accessory (one vlogger uses paperclips to achieve the effect). Click through to other videos on these girls' accounts and you'll see they conform to YouTube's beauty blogger culture, documenting hairstyles and clothing hauls along with their efforts to straighten their teeth.
But the wider reality of the DIY dentistry is not nearly as glossy. It's not cosmetic but reparative, aimed at people going out to job interviews, or just trying to feel confident enough to leave the house. This YouTube cottage industry is largely profitless: Give or take the odd video shilling herbal remedies, it comprises only people trying to help people, by sharing their unlovely experiences.
Why is it easier for us to broadcast the contents of our own mouths to millions than to adequately look after them?
Closer to home, DIY dentistry recalls a hopeless financial climate where, even with measures like the UK's National Health Service, ordinary people turn to DIY healthcare, relying on homespun "solutions" which might end up making their problems worse. It is catalogued in headlines in the Daily Mail and the Guardian as a sign of a system gone wrong. In the US it appears in horror films as the trope of the maligned "hillbilly" character, a symbol of rural poverty visually stigmatised by his rotten teeth (the "redneck" archetype is notably played up to in some of the video's titles).
We live in a world where smartphones are widely available, yet it remains beyond the dreams of ordinary people to hold on to all their teeth. Dentistry has been around since the stone age: why is it that modern capitalism makes it easier for us to record and broadcast the contents of our own mouths to millions than to adequately look after them?
YouTube is a democratic platform, but the business of what's inside our mouths is not. Teeth will always be political, because teeth cost money, perhaps more visibly and tangibly than anything else in our daily lives. Watching these videos you recognise a bit of yourself in the horror, whether you watch for instruction or spectacle. Because most of us have teeth, and all of us will have to pay one day to keep them healthy, whether in money, ingenuity, or pain.