By Shreya Rajagopal Apr. 10, 2019
In the words of the first orthodontist I visited, I had “very big teeth for such a little girl.” I did well at school, I was a dancer and an athlete, there was so much more to me as a person, yet I was reduced to the girl who needed to get her teeth fixed.
As a child, I had beautiful teeth. “Oh, they were like a string of pearls,” my mother sighs, looking ruefully at the set that followed. You see, when I smile, she sees all the men she planned to send me on dates with, running for cover. She sees me in a heavy silk saree, sitting in a decorated mandap, in the banquet hall of some three-star hotel in Cochin, wearing beautiful makeup, but all alone, except for my protruding teeth.
No one saw this coming. When my milk teeth fell out, to a lot of emotional “oohs” and “aahs”, we didn’t foresee the tone of these exclamations changing to ones of sympathy, and quite frankly, even terror. My new teeth evoked passionate emotions in people. In the words of the first orthodontist I visited, I had “very big teeth for such a little girl.” Thus started a huge hate affair with a long line of dentists who had so many different suggestions for how they could make me look prettier.
“Don’t you want to be more beautiful?” leered a middle-aged dentist, in what I’m sure he thought was a reassuring smile. “Once you get this done, you will look like X actress,” said countless others. Each time, X was replaced by whichever actress the dentist in question had the secret hots for. No one cared if I never wanted to look like any of these women. I had to made prettier. It was only right.
Weddings were the absolute best. I used to feel incredibly loved as I watched so many people I’d never previously encountered, take a deep interest in my dental history. I used to love collecting all these well-informed medical opinions and alternatives, and all the phone numbers of the perfect dentists who’d make me beautiful in no time. It was particularly fun to look at people’s eyes drift to my teeth instead of my eyes, just as I sank those beauties into a warm gulab jamun. I never had to work hard on dressing up to be noticed – my beautiful, white showstoppers took that responsibility all onto themselves.
I have never had a problem with the way my teeth are and I don’t want to have painful metal in my mouth all over again.
Being 13, with visibly protruding teeth, I could have handled. Repeatedly being told by adults I that I needed to be made prettier, was quite another ball game. For the longest time, I resisted this idea that I needed to be fixed in some way to be truly beautiful. However, there’s only so much of a fight a nerdy teenager can put up before succumbing to the opinions of the adults around her. The worst part is that these were the very adults I looked up to, often ones holding medical degrees and PhDs. I did well at school, I was a dancer and an athlete, there was so much more to me as a person, yet I was reduced to the girl who needed to get her teeth fixed.
So after a long, inconsistent battle with both braces and myself, I entered adulthood with confidence and protruding teeth. Yes, turns out my teeth held their own against everyone who tried their best to put them in their place. They just really wanted to see the world this whole time! I found myself swept up in this giant wave of body positivity and acceptance, while still being told behind closed doors and in empathising whispers, how I could fix my little problem. I remember how this one guy at my workplace swung from scoffing at my insecurities to suggesting how getting braces would considerably improve my quality of life. Back when we were kids, my friends used to love asking me to close my mouth and see how and if my lips would wrap around my teeth and in my twenties, as I sat in my cubicle, with my friends sitting around me asking me to do the same thing, I wondered if anything had really changed.
I never cease to be amused when the very people who contributed to this gaping insecurity appear shocked when they realize it is one. “But you’re so beautiful, how can you not see that?” Um, it has a lot to do with how you explicitly told me how my teeth looked ugly and if I didn’t get them fixed, I’d never achieve anything in life.
In an essay titled “How to be Shameless”, the YouTube personality Prajakta Koli writes about how she dealt with her own posse of body-shamers as she came to terms with her skinny frame. “It’s so easy to believe what everyone else has to say about you. But then there was that golden day when I flipped to the happier side and decided not to let anyone tell me better. And it was the most liberating feeling I had had in my glorious life of 22 years then.” Like Prajakta, I too have had to work on not letting my supposed flaws become a source of shame.
Today, I work on not attributing every rejection in my personal life to the fact that I look like a distant relative of Bugs Bunny. I have never had a problem with the way my teeth are and I don’t want to have painful metal in my mouth all over again. So the next time someone comes over to tell me I need braces again, I’m going to receive them with nothing but a sarcastic smile, so they can count my teeth in all their imperfect glory.