Are We Binding Our Girls’ Mouths?

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In my daughter’s 5th grade class there are three times as many girls with braces on their teeth than there are boys. Though boys are more likely to get braces these days then they were when I was growing up, the majority of brace-wearers are still girls.

Is this a coincidence? I doubt it…

It seems that right when girls start moving toward puberty, when their bodies start budding and expanding, when they start coming into their own identity as young females — is when their mouths are being bound by metal.

Reminiscent of Chinese girls’ feet-binding, braces seems to be mouth-binding for Western girls. The rational in China was strongly rooted in cultural traditions in which the beauty factor was paramount. Is it any different in the West?

Dentists will tell you that it is, yet the cosmetic factor is present in their narrative as much as it is apparent in their ads, showing (mostly) women close up, flashing perfectly-toothed smiles at the camera. You, too, can have such a smile!

But at what price?

The price seems to be many-fold: there are the years (1-4 generally) of daily constraint on a girl’s mouth, the monthly tightening of the braces at the dentist’s office, the restrictions on what foods can be consumed during the brace-wearing period, the excessive need for teeth & brace brushing, and the awkward look of one’s teeth during those years.

And then, there are the messages hidden in these practices…

To begin with, the message conveyed in an orthodontic devise is that one is not good enough as they are. But even more apparent is the message that “you have to suffer to be beautiful.”

For Chinese girls the message inherent in feet-binding was that they can’t walk too far, run too fast, or even stand too firmly on their own two feet. The metaphor for Western girls is that their voices, indeed their self expression, needs a harness, a continual tightening, a molding to a certain norm, an adhering to a generic ideal of beauty.

A well known joke in Europe asks “How can you tell an American anywhere” and the answer is: “They have perfect teeth!” Herein lies the last hidden message in orthodontic devises: uniformity.

Girls who are just coming into their adolescent years, who are beginning the journey of defining themselves, who are striving to discover their unique voices, to define their own expression in the world, are fitted with braces that will work toward uniformity of looks (in teeth at least) and will abide by a uniform ideal of beauty.

Indeed, some girls (and boys) need braces for health reasons, such as the correction of an over-crowded moth, an over-bite, or an under-bite. But are they the majority of brace-wearers?

I know many grown ups with no apparent oral health issues, who have crooked teeth with which they live in peace. Interestingly, most of them are men.

But if a girl of a certain generation missed the boat, it is not too late for her to become uniformly beautiful after the required period of suffering:

More than one woman I know endured (or is still enduring) two-to-four years of braces on their teeth during their forties. When I asked one of them why she was going through this, she exclaimed: “Because I am ugly!” These, mind you, are not women looking for a partner. They are all married, have beautiful children of varying ages, and are fulfilled in their professional lives. Yet the idea of their beauty being absent until such day that their teeth are uniformly lined, has won them over, and they were willing to suffer for that ideal of beauty…

As the global village equalized merchandise consumed by folks, and works toward a common language used by all, can we allow beauty to be diverse?

Can we let our girls find their voices unhindered by devices in their mouths, and accept that their unique voices are in themselves the measure of beauty, rather than looking for it in the teeth through which they are uttered?

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© 2011 DeAnna L’am, All Rights Reserved

10 Responses

  1. I have to respectfully add that there are reasons, beyond cosmetic appearance, for orthodontia. My teeth were not considered “bad enough” for braces, as a teen, but in my 20’s and early 30’s, they were moving dramatically. Because of this, my top teeth were catching on my bottom teeth, causing pain and chipping. I made the decision, as an adult, to correct the misalignment and would do it all over again.

    1. Christine,
      Thanks for giving voice to your experience and standing up for your truth.
      I absolutely see your point, and fully respect your decision.
      The post indeed acknowledged that sometimes there are good reasons for having braces, there’s no dispute about this.
      My point is directed at the excess of brace fittings, and the metaphor contained in it.

  2. I wonder if your observation is characteristic of a specific socio-economic group, Deanna. I have yet to see such a gender gap when it comes to orthodontic treatment among low-income or middle-class families. I had severe overcrowding of teeth and will be forever grateful of the financial sacrifices my mother made to provide the braces I so desperately needed. My daughter inherited my overcrowding, and at the tender age of 8 could not bite into an apple because of her overbite. Chewing was difficult and tearing food with her incisors was impossible. It was sad to watch. Braces cost thousands of dollars ($3k +) and I doubt that those in middle- or working-class families would be so shallow as to pursue unnecessary orthodontic treatment unless they saw a real need. This is not to undermine your observation of gender pressures to fit a definition of beauty dictated by society at large. But my experience as a woman of color and minority in this country is that the standard of beauty that you refer to is observed in the higher echelons of society and does not reflect other racial/minority groups.

  3. This is a really interesting take on braces. I totally see the comparison.
    That being said, I am so very thankful that my mom insisted on braces for me. And I will encourage it for my daughter, as well.

    I LOVE the slam poetry that Susan linked to. One of my all time favorite pieces on the Interwebz EVER.

  4. This is an excellent article. I’ve long since felt that forcing children to get braces is the 20th-21st version of foot binding. While there are rare cases when braces may be medically necessary, too often it is forced upon children as a cosmetic procedure. In a few generations, people will look back on braces as just another way children were forced to undergo barbaric procedures in order to gain the appearance of beauty.

  5. Though I can see some similarities between foot binding and braces, there are also stark differences to be seen as well, especially when it comes to the end result. Women whose feet were bound were left with severe limitations and were effectively made disabled for life by the procedure. Children who wear braces, on the other hand, are left with no such permanent limitations and disabilities. Once the braces are off, the result is simply a functioning set of teeth and a beautiful smile. Although I hated wearing braces as a child, and indeed was made to wear them twice, about 2 years when I was 8-10 and another 2 years when I was 16-18, I am grateful now that my parents made that decision for me. There is much less stigma going through the procedure as a teenager, when many of your peers are going through the same thing with you, than going through it later on as a adult. Plus, you get to enjoy the result for much longer. I also think that going through having braces made me appreciate my teeth more than someone who didn’t. Now as an adult I am fastidious about brushing and flossing my teeth daily. That being said, this is still a very interesting and thought provoking article and will make me think harder about my reasons for choosing braces or not for my child when he grows up. I do have to admit that the fact that I am having a boy, and not a girl, will influence my future decision, which is something I hadn’t really thought about before.

    1. Thank you, Wendy, for your thoughtful response.
      Indeed, binding girls’ feet had much more devastating results
      than binding girls’ mouths,
      yet the point was made for illustration…
      It is good to know of your experience as a child with braces,
      and the effects it had on you as an adult.

      Provoking thought in my readers is all I hope for as a writer,
      and the fact that you are giving extra thought
      to the possibility of your boy being fitted with braces,
      as well as the question of gender in this regard,
      are truly a reward for a writer…

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