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We need to talk about braces in American culture

I had braces for all four years of high school and every time I tell that to one of my peers, they meet me with the same pitiful look that most of my high school crushes also met me with. Braces are constantly portrayed in popular media as something for the nerdy kid. The awkward kid. The kid who hasn’t grown fully into themselves yet. 

But I, like so many others, thought the stigma and teasing would be worth it in the end. I thought, “it’s ok, I can be that kid in high school and I’ll glow up for college” (I did, by the way). But the reason I got braces, like so many American children, was because my smile wasn’t perfect. And I wasn’t alone, according to the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), around four million Americans are wearing braces today. That number roughly doubled in the U.S. between 1982 and 2008. Here’s why:

Until relatively recently, the number one concern for dentists was tooth decay. Tooth straightening was secondary. But in modern America, tooth decay is uncommon, especially for those who have dental care access. So the now number one concern is cosmetic: alignment.

Historically, there have not been a lot of options for improving the aesthetics of your teeth. Until the 1900s, extraction, dentures or filing teeth down to create an illusion of alignment were the only way to create a straight smile. 

After World War II, this curriculum was adopted by graduate programs across the country, allowing for the mainstream adoption of orthodontics as a ‘necessary’ medical procedure. In fact, now, cosmetic dentistry represents the largest nonsurgical beauty industry after makeup. This includes orthodontia, and teeth-whitening business, which gained its traction in the 1990s.

The ‘necessity’ of braces might come from the fact that straight teeth are perceived as more attractive.  NYMag examined studies that regularly claim that life is “really hard” for people with imperfect teeth. One cited from 2012 said that 38 percent of Americans rule out a second date with someone with misaligned teeth and people with straight teeth are 38 percent more likely to be perceived as smart. Which is, to be honest, super weird, because that’s simply not how teeth are naturally.

The bottom line is that, now, braces are the go-to option to make you the version of yourself that society wants. And when that version costs anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000, we have to understand that societal beauty is also related to wealth and economic privilege. You can track the economic development of middle-class America with the increase in spending on orthodontia.

But what about the kids that never had braces? I personally know plenty of them. My roommate never had braces and her teeth are near perfect with one charming crooked incisor that I feel gives her smile that much more character. And another friend is 21 and just got braces for the first time. Well, he has Invisalign, to be specific, but you get the point.

Adult braces are emerging in popularity. According to the American Association of Orthodontics, about one million adults sought treatment from orthodontists in the U.S. and Canada in 2012. By 2014, that number increased to 1.4 million. President of the AAO Morris N. Poole claimed: “data shows that adults report improvements in their professional and personal lives after completing orthodontic treatments.” Some reports claim that this increase might be associated with the development of Invisalign, which corrects your teeth while being barely noticeable. This presents a dilemma for me, because, while I am proud to say more members of the American public are able to access orthodontia, I find it interesting that this is such a priority. It isn’t in other countries (I’m looking at you, United Kingdom). And maybe if we question this priority, we can start to be more aware.

When I look at characters like Ali Wong’s Sasha Tran in “Always Be My Maybe” and think about the images of power and privilege that braces stand for, I can’t help but think deeper. I think the reason we see Sasha with braces is that the writers want you to know where she comes from. The braces somehow symbolize to the audience that, yes, she is not quite societally beautiful. But she will be. And then I think, when I was in high school, is that what people thought of me? And did the braces really do that much to change whether I am beautiful or not?

The truth is that kids with braces are not the trivial representation we get through pop culture media. To some extent, braces are akin to the “rite of passage” that Dr. Punwani says they are but they also represent so much more: privilege, status, time and priorities. The popularity of braces, despite the cost, is representative of strangely skewed priorities in this country. And I think it’s time to recognize that.

By Jordan Moldenhauer

Jordan Moldenhauer is an editorial fellow in Washington, DC. She's currently an undergraduate student at American University, majoring in Literature (creative writing), and minoring in Communications and Sociology. She's originally from Northern California, but was born in Milan, Italy, and has also lived in Shanghai, China. She doesn't know what her future holds, but is so glad that The Tempest is a part of her journey!