Flossing is nonsense

Four or five Thanksgivings ago, I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning in a deep, intense conversation with my cousin and his fiancee that ended up with me vowing to floss.

I forget how the topic came up, but at one point, the fiancee, a beautiful and mesmerising self-help guru, exclaimed, “Oh my god, I LOVE flossing my teeth!”

Needless to say, I was taken aback, though this was years before this week’s news that the United States government has removed daily flossing from its official Dietary Guidelines for Americans after admitting to the Associated Press that “the effectiveness of flossing had never been researched”.

I wasn’t shocked because I wondered why she was wasting her time. I gaped because what type of human being likes flossing? Who, among the members of even this surely very small category, could honestly say that they “love” it? I might have thought she was joking, but we had been talking long enough for me to know that there was no way she would joke about something like this.

She flossed twice a day, just after breakfast and again before she went to bed, and she said it was one of her most important rituals and a key to maintaining physical and emotional health. She spoke with a religious fervour and missionary zeal.

“Tell me your secret,” I said. “How did you come to ‘love’ flossing? I want to learn to love flossing. I need to learn to love flossing.”

Shortly before that night, I had gone to a dentist for the first time in more than a decade. My mouth was a disaster site: My teeth hurt, my gums bled every time I brushed them. I had gum disease, the dental hygienist said, and she warned me about all sorts of more serious health problems that studies had shown might follow — loss of teeth, heart disease, even cancer! I would have to come back for cleanings twice a month for the next four months. And I’d have to floss.

We filled out a calendar of appointments and I made them. But I struggled, and failed, to find a daily flossing routine. It was hard to remember. And even when I did, it was such a boring way to spend two minutes, so unrewarding. And it hurt. Just a little, but still. Every time I squeezed the waxy little string between two of my teeth, just at that first moment, when you penetrate and the floss hits the gum: Ouch! Again, just a little ouch, but certainly enough to render the whole endeavour less than fun.

How did my cousin’s fiancee do it?

Well, she told me, she’d essentially tricked herself into getting excited about it. Every morning, and every night, she’d look at herself in the mirror and say, aloud: “Yay, I get to floss now! I love to floss my teeth!” And when she’d finished, she’d say “Yay! I feel so much better now. I feel clean and refreshed and healthy!” She said to think about flossing as a gift you can give to yourself.

I’ve never been one for daily affirmations, or for talking to myself out loud. But I did like the idea of tricking myself. I did, and do, believe that tricking oneself is a pretty necessary trick for psychological survival. I had to trick myself into thinking today would be better than recent days have been, for example, just to get myself out of bed this morning!

But I figured, it’s never too late to change. I really did want to start flossing regularly. I hated all those dentist visits. And I didn’t want to get cancer.

So I made a promise that night, in front of my cousin and his fiancee and my wife, Emily, to give it a good-faith try. I committed to a month: I would stand in front of the mirror, look myself in the eye and say, “I love flossing! Flossing makes me feel great! I am lucky to be able to floss!”

I followed through. “Yay!” I’d say in the mirror, cracking up sometimes, but ploughing through it, pushing past the self-ridicule. “I love this!”

It didn’t take. I never learned to like flossing, much less love it. I never didn’t feel stupid talking to myself in the mirror. It never became any less boring. And I quit — as is my wont, I’ve always lacked self-discipline. It wasn’t an abrupt quitting. It was a gradual petering out. After almost a month.

So I was glad to read the news about the uncertainty of its effectiveness. Who knows whether flossing works? Who knows whether it’s healthy?

One thing’s for sure, though. It is definitely boring. I’m happy not to do it and to not feel guilty about it.

My cousin and his fiancee ended up calling off the marriage. (Not because I never learned to love flossing my teeth, I’m pretty sure. For other reasons.) Better for both of them, they both think. It wasn’t meant to be.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd