Life with a (Metal) Smile

When the airport security screener’s eyes widened as he stared at my license and then at me, I feared he suspected I was a terrorist or worse. Instead, he said: “You have braces.”

I was unsure whether to laugh, feign astonishment and say “how did that happen?” or to be very, very concerned about the ability of airport security to do more than state the obvious.

Hoping to avoid being hauled off to a secret room for a strip-search because of metal on my teeth, I simply replied, “Yes, I do.”

He shrugged and said, “Well, if you can get them at your age, I guess I could, too.”

I tried not to be insulted about the “at your age part” and considered responding that while getting braces in my late 50s may not be the traditional path to beautiful teeth, an estimated 1 million adults now wear them. In fact, advances in orthodontia have made the process far less painful and obvious, which gave me the courage to finally end a lifetime of loathing for my less-than-perfect teeth.

The first step was a free consultation, where I learned the orthodontist’s oldest patient was 81 and adults comprise a fifth of the practice. He said I had a youthful smile displaying most of my teeth while older mouths often droop so much they hide most of them. When he promised to improve my smile in less than a year without extractions and make me look even younger, I was sold.

"Will I get Angelina Jolie lips, too?" I asked hopefully.

He looked shocked. "Those aren't even attractive," he mumbled, although I think he's the only man in America who believes that.

The next decision was whether to go with full metal, partial metal with white ceramic brackets, or clear Invisalign braces. Invisalign takes longer and must be removed for all food or drink, which was too labor-intensive. Full metal jacket seemed the antithesis of the vanity that got me to this point. That left ceramic brackets threaded with a piece of silver metal.

Then I learned the plastic ties needed to move the teeth stain easily. I’ll suffer for beauty, but giving up coffee and red wine would kill me. I opted for metal ties and while I’d always desired a smile that lit up a room, I didn’t expect it to result from light reflecting off a mouthful of metal.

But that wasn’t the only unexpected part of my orthodontic journey. There’s more!

Things I Learned From Having Braces:

• When they warn you might feel “slightly uncomfortable” after installation, they’re “slightly” minimizing the feeling of having teeth that hurt too much to eat or metal rubbing the inside of your mouth raw.

• Dental wax protects against some of this painful friction, but it’s equally painful to see ugly globs of white stuff on ugly metal designed to fix ugly teeth.

• However, wax is more attractive than food debris. I’ll spare you the details, but spinach and blueberries should be avoided.

• Orthodontists may underestimate how long the process takes, and then blame your “uncooperative” teeth.

• Wearing braces leads to staring at other people’s teeth – either to admire them or if they’re misaligned, wonder why they don’t get braces, too.

• Some claim you’ll eat less, but if you’ve got enough patience, you can figure out how to eat pizza crust, bagels and other favorite foods.

• Apples, popcorn, nuts and sticky candy are forbidden foods and not worth the cleanup afterward anyway.

• Brushing after every time you eat or drink consumes lots of time, but leads to whiter teeth.

• Flossing braces can add at least 20 minutes to an oral hygiene routine. Over 11 months (most adults wear braces for 12 to 20 months), that’s a whopping 110 hours lost to flossing.

• When the braces come off, a new torture begins. For the first month, I removed my retainer only to eat or drink. I’m so lazy that it was easier to skip snacks than brush my teeth AND the clear plastic apparatus. I’m hoping to patent this diet aid.

But here’s the most unexpected thing of all: After 11 months of stares and comments about my braces, on top of a lifetime of discomfort over a flawed smile, very few people noticed my newly straight and beautiful teeth, including my own mother, even though I was grinning from ear-to-ear.

I’m not certain what this means, but I wasn’t “braced” for that, believe me. I bet they would have noticed Angelina Jolie lips, though.

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