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?
© 2011 DeAnna L’am, All Rights Reserved