When I was 20 and in theatre school, I made the big decision to Get Braces. My teeth were okay but they weren’t exactly straight, and a particular molar, leaning sideways and rotated almost 90 degrees, was giving my dentist pause. I was also beginning to realize that if I wanted any chance as an actor outside of theatre, looking the way I did (thin, blonde, blue eyes, terribly naive), there was a particular pigeonhole I was going to have to fit in (Noxema commercial) and that pigeonhole required straight teeth. I wanted to be hire-able, my dentist was recommending braces, and yes, I wanted a prettier smile.
Considering I never DID go on to become a Noxema girl or even pursue theatre performance as a career (though I may still, who knows), were my braces just an expensive exercise in vanity? My parents (who paid for most of it) will be happy to hear that the answer is no. Orthodontics involve a lot more than vanity–patience, humility, a high pain threshold, and an incredible commitment to good dental hygiene. Besides, if I’d only been interested in looking good, I could have used Invisalign retainers instead–they would have straightened the front teeth for that pretty “facewash commercial” smile, but would not have been strong enough to fix that errant molar. I didn’t just want teeth that looked good, I wanted teeth that were good.
So I went with the metal braces. FULL metal braces. Traditional braces are small metal brackets glued to the teeth. The wire that runs through them is held in place by tiny elastics (sometimes coloured) on each bracket. These are not the braces I chose. My orthodontist had a relatively new kind of braces, large metal brackets with hinges on them that hold the wire themselves. Because there are no elastics creating friction on the wire, it is able to move more freely and my braces would, theoretically, work faster (I think this was the case). Full metal braces, while larger, sharper, and less cute, are also easier to keep clean. So I thought, what the hell. I’m getting braces at the age of 20. I don’t need cute coloured elastics. Let’s get this over with–I’m going with the full metal braces.
Bring it on.
And “bring it on” my braces certainly did. If you had braces as a child, maybe your teeth were more susceptible to movement, or maybe you just don’t remember, but I cannot fathom that children could endure such a barbaric ordeal. There’s no magic trick involved in braces. Basically, you’ve put something into your mouth whose job is to actually physically push and pull your teeth into place. ALL THE TIME. They’re pushing and pulling while you sleep, while you eat, while you study, while you kiss. They’re also stabbing you. They’re stabbing your lips, the insides of your cheeks, and they are slicing your tongue to shreds.
My first few weeks with braces, my diet consisted mainly of cream of wheat, pancakes, rice and beans, and fruit juice. Eating a hard cracker like a Stoned Wheat Thin (my favourite) was excruciating. I basically said good-bye to apples for a year and a half, and had to eat almost everything with a fork and knife (pizza, burgers, you name it) to avoid simply grating it all into a mush on my braces.
When I went home from the orthodontist and saw my teeth for the first time, I cried. It was only within the past year or so that I had finally begun to feel truly confident with my looks, and for some crazy reason I’d decided to just throw all that down the shitter and fill my mouth with sharp foreboding pieces of metal and wire. Nice one. The sting of feeling ugly stayed for a long time, and ultimately, I think having the braces were a good exercise for me: learning to smile with my teeth despite the braces, flirting despite the braces, and understanding that I was a young woman of dignity and intelligence, despite the fact that I looked like a teenager.
Another shitty thing about braces is that it’s not as though you pop them on, they do all the work, and then one day, hey presto! Straight teeth! If you don’t want your teeth to stain under and around the brackets (or have food in your teeth 24/7), you have to brush your teeth Every Time You Eat Anything. You have to floss with a little thing called a floss threader, which takes ten times longer than flossing without braces. You have to clean between each bracket and the wire with a little triangular brush (that my orthodontist’s assistant called a Christmas tree). And you have to rinse daily with a special antibacterial mouth wash. You also have to visit your orthodontist every month or so for adjustments (i.e. once you’re finally used to your wire they give you a stronger one and it hurts like hell all over again), put in elastics to move your jaw, take them out to eat, put in tighter elastics to move your jaw, take them out to eat, have to wear your tighter elastics for an extra month because your jaw hasn’t strengthened properly, etc. Basically, you become obsessed with your teeth. Sometimes, I would dream that they were falling apart (sometimes I still have nightmares that my teeth are breaking).
It’s a real good time.
But I must say that the worst, the worst thing about the braces is that I felt embarrassed to talk. Me! Little Miss Chatterbox! And it hurt me. Cracks about my talkative nature aside, for me to feel that I can’t communicate is psychological torture. At first, of course, I was just embarrassed about my newly-acquired lisp and the difficulty I was having enunciating (in theatre school, this is a big problem). And then I was embarrassed about the awkward way my lips closed over my braces. And then I was embarrassed about the fact that when I talked, my teeth would show, and people would see my braces. When I had elastics in to move my jaw, I was embarrassed about those. That anything should prevent or reduce my talking was new for me. I didn’t like it.
It’s fairly obvious I had a lot of hang-ups about my braces. The ages of 20 and 21 bring with them enough insecurities as it is, so in some ways maybe it was good to be able to bestow my insecurities on a temporary physical feature, outside of my actual abilities and my personhood. And it’s not as though my braces actually held me back at all–I performed in a lead role in an SFU mainstage production, I mini-toured to the University of the Fraser Valley as a performer in an MFA thesis production, I acheived a 4.0 semester, I assistant-taught the second-year theatre voice and speech class–all with braces.
I should also point out that during my year and a half with braces I kissed three young men, all of whom, if I do say so, were quite dashing. One of them even called me “twinkle teeth”. So perhaps there’s something to be said for these fiendish contraptions.
Of course there is. The day I had my braces taken off was a beautiful day. It was shocking to see my smooth white teeth (white from all the obsessive brushing), and be able to run my tongue over them. After so long, my braces had become a part of me, and I felt a sense of loss at letting them go. But not for long. Caramel apples were in my horizon, and big toothy smiles awaited the praise of friends and dental hygienists alike.
P.S. This post is, in part, for my friend Raul, a university professor who recently took the plunge. Hang in there buddy!