Wins and flosses

By Joseph Valdez

Two months into my freshman year at Yale, I called my friend Benedict at Harvard to catch up and compare notes. We covered classes and suitemates, rattled off the list of clubs and activities, bemoaned the recent loss of our beloved Grantland [1], but mostly, we marveled at how very different our new homes were from the one we had left back in Evanston, Illinois. Nobody uses our slang words or appreciates good chicken wings, we complained. The clothes are different, the language, the attitudes. “One weird thing,” Benedict cut in. “Do people floss at Yale?” Yes, I replied. Yes they do.


I first encountered this strange phenomenon in my first moments on campus. My roommate and I had both returned from FOOT trips, and we unpacked together in our common room. She rooted around in a bag her parents had brought for her and remarked, “Ugh, all I want to do is floss,” as she pulled out a white box of dental floss. “Really?” I thought. All you want to do is floss? Of all the infinite exciting things to do on one’s first day of college, all you want to do right now is run a fancy mint string through the space between your teeth? But I dismissed it as a curious personal preference and continued to unpack.

My dear roommate, though the first, was not the last Yalie I’ve found committed to pristine oral hygiene, however. In fact, I’ve run into almost every young woman on my floor at some point flossing away to her little heart’s content. I’ve seen everything from fancy floss gadgets to the daily disposables to the plastic floss men [2] little kids get at the dentist. Many stay true to the down and dirty fingers and floss technique, though, which I guess I can respect. Even when I venture outside of my entryway I’m not safe from this maddening dedication to oral health. In the bathroom of my friend’s off campus apartment, I found a Reach Access Flosser sitting next to an almost empty package of its disposable floss components. The apartment’s occupant was a serial flosser—I would have never guessed.

Now I’m not averse to flossing every once in a while. We’ve all had cause to dislodge a rogue popcorn kernel or, back in Evanston, a tiny bit of chicken wing. But I just can’t get behind making a habit of it mostly because it feels unnecessary to me. I know abstractly that it is a good thing to do, but those who do it everyday seem to do it because of just that—they feel they must. Surrounded, as I am, by driven Ivy Leaguers, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that many blindly follow what ten out of ten dentists strongly recommend, but it still seems to me an improbable dedication to a bizarre brand of perfectionism. It’s as if they’re all pursuing that one extra A+ on their dental exam, a gold star for sucking up to the doctor, the plaque for most zealous plaque hunter.

In 2013, the American Dental Association found that 50.5% of Americans surveyed floss daily, and 30% floss but not daily. To me that sounds like a straight up lie, but assuming it is true and I am simply a part of the “18.5%” who stubbornly refuses to floss regularly, the statistics for the Ivy League are still startling. Eleven out of sixteen people on my floor floss at least semi-regularly, which is 68.8% [3]. If we extrapolate to the rest of the glorified athletic conference known as the Ivy League, it seems we’ve got a lot of flossers roaming around here.

If over 46,000 [4] highly educated people are doing it, they must have some empirical reason. According to the first Google result for “Benefits of flossing,” “If you don’t floss, you’re more likely to have plaque build-up, which can lead to cavities, tooth decay, and gum disease. If left untreated, gum disease can be a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and a high body mass index.” These sound like good reasons to floss, but I know that the Ivy flossing epidemic isn’t because of the objective health benefits. It is the overarching attitude of achievement in my new home that sustains this strange practice. Yale attracts flossers and maintains them.

I’ll admit that there were times in my life when I was a flosser. I would pledge perfection for a couple weeks at a time. These bursts of commitment to my gums usually coincided with equally unsustainable promises to put my laundry away rather than live out of the basket for a few weeks or do my homework at my desk rather than on the floor or in my bed. I have a secret flosser hidden away inside me, but I try not to let her control me. She nagged me about doing ACT flashcards and keeping a journal, about making my bed and taking vitamins. She wanted me to be the perfectionist that I just couldn’t be. Surrounded by flossers here at school, I realize, she is not me—I am not her.

Back home, the neighborhood kids always marched out into the dentist’s waiting room with a plastic bag, a clean new smile, and marching orders to start flossing everyday. Like the cheap chachki picked from the “toy box” at the end of the appointment, nothing ever came of those instructions. By the time I turned eighteen, I stopped lying to Pam—my dental hygienist—at the beginning of every appointment. “Do you floss?” she always asks. I used to say something like “not as often as I should” or “every couple weeks.” These days, I just go with “no.” I’m sorry Pam of North Shore Dentistry for Children, but I am an adult now and I don’t floss.


On the phone, Benedict sounded panicked. “Everyone in my suite flosses together every night. They all do it.” Stay calm, I told him; stay true to who you are. In this crazy new world we need to hold onto that rebellious Midwestern, public school cowboy within us—the non-flosser. “I don’t know,” my friend, the stats major worries: “With ten percent more peer pressure, I think I’ll start flossing.” I hope it doesn’t come to that for him. I hope he stays strong in the battle against flossers, but he’s already demonstrating weakness. Not me. I may make my bed sometimes or put my laundry away due to space constraints, but I am yet no flosser. My desk remains unused, my watch almost a full minute slow. I’ve bled for my cause [5]. I’ve stared gingivitis in the face, and I am not afraid. I’ll hold on to home by the skin of my teeth.

[1] A sports and culture blog known for long form journalism that was shut down by its owner ESPN on October 30, 2015

[2] For those unfamiliar, it’s a piece of plastic shaped like a tiny man with no arms that somehow holds floss.

[3] I attended my Introduction to Statistics lecture semi-regularly, and I’m pretty sure this is what we like to call “statistically significant.”

[4] That’s 68.8% of the Ivy League’s estimated total undergraduate enrollment

[5] Because any time I do floss, my gums bleed. Whoops.

One Response

  1. Doralu Chanen says:

    Dear Emma.

    As you might have guessed–the don’t floss gene is I confess on your father’s maternal side, GENETIC!!
    P.S. I have five implants.

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