What do children and boys on Tinder have in common? They’re the only people who feel fully comfortable informing me that I have braces.
Yes, I do have braces -- you’re very observant. Yes, I had them once before, when I was in middle school. No, I don’t know when I’m getting them off yet -- I ask the orthodontist every time I go and he gives me that vague moan of a “we’ll see” that parents try when their kids ask them to go to Disney World. I didn’t get Invisalign because the orthodontist said they wouldn’t work as well in my mouth for what they’re trying to do. I know my teeth are straight. What they’re trying to do is prep my bite for major jaw surgery I’ll be getting when my teeth have reached the dubious rank of “ready.”
We all set? Good. My name is Dana Schwartz, I am 23 years old, and I have braces for the foreseeable future. Not the small, clear, expensive ones that look like Vaseline on a pageant girl’s teeth, either: big, metallic train-track brackets that trap spinach leaves and cut into my mouth when I laugh.
Let me say right here that I fully acknowledge that having braces at 23 is far from a life of strife. Honestly, it’s a blessing that I’m able to afford them and I’ll be able to get the surgery that will improve my smile and will keep my jaw from making a clicking noise every time I open my mouth. But having braces -- a small but noticeable part of my appearance -- has made me hyperaware of what people say, and don’t say, about how others look.
It’s most obvious on Tinder, that soul-sucking distillation of humanity’s worst impulses. “You have braces” is a message I’ve received a few times. More often than not, it’s followed by some derivation of “that’s a fetish of mine.” Obviously, an app that relies on a swipe as an immediate knee-jerk reflex based on somebody’s physical appearance doesn’t bring out the best in any of us (a male friend once watched the way I swiped with militaristic precision -- “left, left, left, left, right” -- and said I represented all of his fears about female judgment). But Tinder has taught me that my braces -- which I hadn’t been thinking much about, let alone embarrassed about -- are one of the most prominent aspects of my appearance that men who seize upon when they’re deciding whether they’re attracted to me. Those boys act as though they’re generous to be attracted to me because I have braces -- as though I’d be lucky to have them.
In a world where so many people relate to me online, where I’m a static image and a self-aware construct of myself, I use pictures of myself smiling with my mouth closed. My reflex is to only take pictures smiling with my mouth closed now. I cover my mouth when I laugh. I didn’t even notice I had been doing it until I spent time with my family over Christmas and they teased me about my new closed-mouth smirk. They didn’t realize I was hiding my braces. They didn’t realize the braces were really something to hide.
It’s a small thing, but here’s what I’ve realized about insecurity: Whether it’s me, or society, or being a woman, or some combination of all of the above, I’m embarrassed when I’m not perfect. There are the charming ways to not be perfect, of course, the tweets about sleeping in and eating junk food. But those represent a Jennifer Lawrence–style attempt at imperfection with the intent to still end up charming.
The first time I put jokes on the Internet it was on Reddit, and I was in college, the happy interim between having braces. The response to the joke was positive; the response to my photograph alongside it was people debating whether my gummy smile prevented me from being fuckable. Now I have braces prepping my mouth for surgery to fix my gummy smile. They’re going to cut my gums up and wire my mouth closed for six months and leave me in braces for another year to make me look better in the long run. I tell myself I’m doing it for me, because I wanted to be confident in the way I looked, but it’s hard to know for sure.
I’m a writer, and a comedian, and I put myself and my work “out there” in the physical and metaphorical sense every day. All of my insecurities converge into the fear that the Internet will find something I write and, regardless of its content, dismiss it because I’m fat, or ugly, or have a gummy smile, or have braces. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, if I wore too much makeup, or were too pretty, or wore clothing that someone thought was too sexy ... commenters can find an infinite number of reasons to dismiss a woman, and it’s exhausting to try to find the sweet spot of Pretty but not Superficial, Desirable but not Slutty, Intelligent but not Frigid. Any physical imperfection is fair game when a woman is audacious enough to have a photograph of herself available on the Internet.
The boy I’m dating doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with my smile. “When are you getting that surgery to fix whatever you think is wrong with your totally fine profile?” he asked me the other day. Immediately I’m terrified that he’s already impatient for me to get my braces off. He says he’s fine with them. “They’re cute,” he says, and kisses me. And I feel grateful. And then I feel so disappointed in myself for feeling grateful for that.
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