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Fixing my smile

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Esther Cepeda
February 12, 2012
— This column is for all the crooked-toothed adults out there: Tell me if you can relate to this story.

When I was a child, I dreamed of getting braces.


As my more-affluent schoolmates started getting them, my own request was denied because the cost put them out of my family’s reach. My fate was to cry about my terribly crooked teeth—a lot.


When I was about 10, I devised a plan to spend 10 minutes every day trying to rotate my front teeth into a normal, flat-front position by pressuring them with my thumbs and forefingers. That didn’t work—and neither did my brilliant scheme to use unbent paper clips to force my pearly whites into line.


Throughout my young adult life I suffered years of embarrassing school portraits, was compared to chipmunks and other rodents—even by loved ones and friends—and was once referred to as “the girl who makes McDonald’s arches with every bite.” In college I noticed that my friends tended to set me up on dates with similarly crooked-teethed guys, as if we belonged together solely based on our parents’ inability to pay for heavy dental metal.


Then one fine day—long after I’d gotten married, had kids and left any self-esteem issues far behind—my dentist told me that if I didn’t have four of my teeth pulled and get braces, I was in for a lifetime of painful mouth problems.


Getting braces as a 31-year-old was the longest, most painful and awkward ordeal I’ve ever endured. For an entire year and half, I could barely eat, and every time I opened my mouth people were shocked and full of questions—a grown woman with braces?! Why?


Today, just six years later, I would not be such an exception.


I just about fell off my chair last week when I learned that the American Association of Orthodontists is launching its first-ever marketing campaign aimed at prospective adult patients—to add to the skyrocketing numbers of adults who are doing now what they couldn’t as kids.


According to the association, the number of Americans 18 and older who are getting braces or other teeth-straightening treatments more than doubled from 1994 to 2010 to 1.1 million annually. Adults now represent one in five orthodontic patients.


I’m proud to say I was the first in my family to get braces and, not long after, my older cousin got them, then my husband, too. And though the number of child patients has been increasing at a slower rate than the number of adult patients, both of my terrible-toothed children are already in treatment, and I can’t imagine that any of their cousins will lack straight teeth.


Whether the change in our facial structures gave us new confidence, or others found us more attractive because of contemporary beauty standards, braces have already changed our lives for the better.


Sure, they’re expensive and rarely covered by health or dental insurance, and because teeth that have been in certain spots for decades are being forced in new directions, it hurts a lot. And there’s the weirdness of having important meetings with people you want to impress over a meal. Depending on how much pain you’re in, you may be unable to bite into even the softest food or, alternately, be fine to eat but have such a mess in your brackets that you fear talking and must run to the bathroom to brush and floss as soon as you’re done.


But those are mere speed bumps to a smile you’ll never again want to hide away.


It is true that it’s what’s on the inside that really counts. But many adults—especially those whose families couldn’t afford childhood treatment and are now trying to make it in politics, media, corporate America and just about any other situation where looks matter—will find that having a newly straightened smile will help them in life in countless ways, just as it has others who had the benefit in adolescence.


Yes, braces are every bit as magical as I imagined them to be as a kid. If you’re an adult and always wanted them, don’t hesitate to go for it—the cost, pain and hassle are nothing compared to the joy of smiling at yourself in the mirror every day.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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