Since my days in elementary school, I've been hugely insecure about my teeth. The various dental and orthodontic issues I experienced over the years, as well as the negative comments from family members and neighborhood bullies, made it pretty difficult to embrace any sort of body positivity regarding my smile.
Thanks to my tiny mouth, my teeth had a tendency to crowd and overlap. I also have a crossbite, which causes the right side of my teeth to land in my cheek and create the occasional sore and scar. Two of my adult teeth even started growing in before their respective baby teeth fell out. For a 10-year-old who already had huge body image issues, this only made life more difficult. My aunt's rude comments about how I should get my snaggle teeth pulled out didn't do much to better the situation. And my parents, seemingly unaware of the option to help me build a better and more loving relationship with myself, encouraged me to get braces because only then could I feel happy with how I looked.
Eleven years later, my teeth have done a lot of straightening out on their own, probably due in part to my newer adult-sized mouth making room. And with my adult-sized mouth came a more expanded and mature understanding of body image, leading me to apply body positive thoughts to my teeth. Gradually, I even came to love my smile, no longer hiding it from first dates or the flash of a camera. Here's how I did that.
1. Giving Up On Braces & "Perfection"
For most of my young life, I saw my smile as impermanent — something I could fix. I would fantasize about correcting my crooked teeth with orthodontic work so I could someday smile without shame. However, my experience at the orthodontist was daunting. The doctor's recommendation involved a mouth full of metal for at least two years, including bars beneath my tongue to correct some slight misalignment in my jaw.
Looking at a computerized replica of my head, the doctor advised that I get plastic surgery to make my jaw bones completely even (for cosmetic purposes only, I learned later). The body negativity of the experience, plus the promise of plenty of headaches from the braces (I already had chronic migraines at the time), really made me think twice about my priorities. I was dissatisfied with my teeth, sure, but sealing that feeling with a permanent decision felt harmful to me, and made me begin to consider other ways to go about addressing my feelings. Braces are extreme dental work are definitely great (even healthy!) for some folks, but for me, it mostly came down to aesthetics. So I came to realize that my technically flawed teeth were actually beautiful.
2. Checking Out Celebrities With Imperfect Teeth
As I embarked on a journey of trying to understand my feelings about my teeth, I noticed that many of the celebrities I looked up to at the time, like Kirsten Dunst and Avril Lavigne, had fang-like snaggle teeth similar to mine. And yet I and many others still considered them beautiful. In fact, their imperfect teeth were hardly an area of discussion at all, probably because it didn't affect how beautiful their smiles were.
Realizing this helped me laugh off my own insecurities more and more, as I put into perspective how silly it is to get hung up on specific features of one's body. How can crooked teeth really make anyone less beautiful?
3. Learning That Beauty Is Subjective
When I met my current partner, I fell in love first and foremost with their smile. Their gap-toothed grin left me swooning for days, and they were the first person to ever receive a "your teeth are so sexy" compliment from me. I learned later that one of my partner's greatest insecurities has to do with their teeth, which was pretty shocking considering I saw their smile as one of their most attractive features by far.
I told them that gaps are totally cute, and are even coveted in high fashion thanks to models like Georgia May Jagger. This explanation and my feelings about their teeth really made me understand how subjective beauty is, and how obsolete beauty standards are. They change all the time based on the era, place, or person. So if beauty didn't mean just one thing (straight teeth, gap-toothed, etc.) and I could love and obsess over my partner's teeth, then couldn't I love my own smile as well?
4. Coating My Smile In Lipstick
Once I discovered the power of bold lipstick choices, I used it excessively. Wearing lipstick made me feel way more relaxed and confident, which made smiling feel a little less scary too. No matter how body negative I was feeling about my teeth on a given day, a swipe of green or black lipstick would always make it better.
5. With A Little Help From My Friends
It wasn't until I graduated high school that I began establishing actual friendships with kind and like-minded people. And to my surprise, every one of them has expressed how beautiful my smile is. My partner also tells me every day how wonderful I look when I smile.
At first, this was really hard for me to accept, and I assumed comments such as these were only made with the purpose of making me feel better about my clearly flawed teeth. However, the more I relaxed into the compliments and shared these insecurities with others, the more I realized that their words were just as genuine as the comments I had made about my partner's gap-toothed smile.
6. Showing My Teeth More Often
With this knowledge in mind, I started to let go of my efforts to hide my teeth. Back in the day, I would smile with my mouth closed, and take whatever measure I could to avoid facial expressions that might be unflattering to my mouth. I kept my smile muted in photographs, afraid of exposing my crooked teeth to the camera lens. After all, I didn't need anymore photos commemorating an ugly smile.
But the thing is, my smile is not ugly. I was feeling better and better about it every day, with everyone around me only confirming the uplifting capabilities of my glowing grin. So I came out of my shell, and began experimenting with smiling. It took work, but now I don't feel a million mental alarms going off whenever I show my teeth in public or for photos.
7. Realizing My Right To Happiness
Regardless of what my teeth look like, or whether I think they're beautiful or not, it dawned on me one day that I deserve to express my joy through an uninhibited smile as much as anybody else does. Today, I love smiling. It brings me so much glee not to have to apologize for my teeth or spectrum of facial expressions. When I'm happy, I allow myself to smile as wide as I want. When I'm feeling silly, I let myself make the weird faces. And when I'm having an off day, forcing myself to smile sometimes puts me back into a more optimistic state of mind.
It took me years, and I definitely still have my bad body image days. But I can confidently say that I love my smile now. Body positivity is a journey, and our feelings are complex and ever-fluctuating. But at the end of the day, I am thankful for my smile and acknowledge my right to claim happiness and space just as much as any human, "perfect" teeth or not.
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Images: Meg Zulch