Why worry about the endless reports of potential terrorist threats and a sagging economy when you can turn your attention to smaller stuff - like next season's fashion trends or the pearly whiteness of your teeth? Never mind what's going on in Iraq, North Korea, and Liberia - focus your energies on fitting into skimpy outfits and making your smile as white as possible.
Teeth-whitening seems to be the latest fad in the pursuit of perfection, along with excessive dieting and obsessive waxing. It's a sad comment on our collective attention span. And, while all this primping and prodding may seem innocuous, studies prove that whitening may be more harmful than consumers think.
Enlightened men and women of the future will probably shake their heads in disbelief when they look back at today's modern man and woman, just as we gasp at suffocating Victorian corsets or the austere Elizabethan white-faced fashion achieved with lead-based powder. Although we scoff, the truth is that we haven't traveled too far from Scarlett O'Hara and her demands that her corset be pulled tighter.
How will future generations describe the vanity that inspires today's incomprehensible designs on fashion runways, hairless bodies, and porcelain-white teeth?
I'm sure they will be stymied to discover that men and women of all shapes and IQs thought they could never be too thin, even though plus-sized women like Starr Jones and heavyweights like Drew Carey had thousands of adoring fans. They probably won't comprehend the anxiety of being caught with hairy armpits the way Julia Roberts was in the tabloids (a hair-raising event that prompted women to deforest their bodies before venturing outdoors).
And then, when style couldn't have gotten any more self-flagellating, ancient ad clips will show that it did. Future social historians will note how, amid much gnashing of teeth, our pearly whites became startlingly brilliant. They will analyze the effects of a punishing hygiene that required swishing 10 percent carbamide peroxide for whiter smiles.
If only we were paying attention now. In the quest for bodily perfection and everlasting youth, consumers today are tantalized by beautiful, movie-star teeth. They are basting in, accidentally swallowing, rinsing, chewing, and brushing with carbamide peroxide. Consumers are paying $300 for home bleaching kits, are zapped with lasers, and are using gum, toothpaste, whitening strips, and over-the-counter and dentist-approved tooth-bleaching gels. It seems that sane men and women are trying anything to restore their teeth to their original shade, or to an even brighter, unnatural shade of white.
Now, how bright is this?
Some teeth-bleaching agents have been approved by the American Dental Association (ADA), but these agents are classified as cosmetics, not as drugs. If bleaching agents were classified as drugs, the ADA's scrutiny would be much greater and the agents would be subject to more safety testing, efficacy, and clinical trials. Teeth-whiteners definitely bleach, so no false advertising is at work here. But what else do they do?
My own experience with whitening gel should serve as a warning to others: Bleaching led immediately to long, expensive hours in the dentist's chair to fix the damage done.
Before Socrates drank the poison hemlock, he said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Modern men and women have taken this to heart. They examine their lives, marriages, and fluctuating happiness levels, but they're less circumspect about the damage they inflict on themselves in their quest to look beautiful.
Let's fight tooth and nail against fads and fashions that harm us. It isn't necessary to feel our own pain to look good.
• Freda Lewkowicz is a high school English teacher.