“Keep the trays in your mouth for at least 22 hours a day,” my dentist told me as he inserted my first set of clear plastic Invisalign braces. “You can’t eat or drink anything except water when they’re in.”
This was the scariest part of getting Invisalign. A dull ache in my mouth as the teeth shifted like tectonic plates I could take. Sleeping with a mouthful of plastic, no problem. Lisping or spitting a bit when I talked with the trays in, I was ready for. But no snacking? No cup of tea whenever I wanted? No gum-chewing to freshen my breath? No tasting as I cooked? These habits seemed fundamental to my well-being. Being a grazer felt like a permanent trait, possibly traceable to a snacking gene on one of my chromosomes. What was I doing, bringing this deprivation on myself?
I can’t remember a time when I liked my teeth. They’re crooked, especially the lower ones. Even with a few teeth extracted when I was young to make room for the rest, my lower front teeth look like a line of dominos the cat just walked through. On top, my two front teeth dominate my smile, with the neighboring lateral incisors lurking behind on each side like shy toddlers who’ve just been introduced to a stranger. Those two front teeth were massive in relation to my face when they first came in. The rest of me grew into them a bit, and bruxism (teeth grinding) whittled them down a millimeter or two before I got a mouth guard. But I’ve never had that lovely U-shaped arc of well-aligned teeth, top or bottom.
None of the four kids in my family got braces when we were young. We weren’t rich, although I’ve lately started to wonder if our parents could have swung for braces if they’d wanted to. They provided well for us on my dad’s bowling-alley-manager salary, but there weren’t many frills. Based on their no-nonsense Midwestern attitudes towards so many things, I’m assuming that braces fell into the “nice to have” category.
I envied the kids with braces at school, even those who had to wear rubber bands or head gear. My whole life, it seems, I’ve been deeply attracted to delayed gratification and to fixing basic infrastructure problems before moving on to exterior beautification. Braces meant your family was investing in you. Braces meant that you were being set right for life. Braces made you part of the “haves” rather than the “have nots.”
Once I went to college, graduate school, and then into my work career, I barely thought about braces. The obsession faded completely. If you’d asked me when I was 35 whether I’d ever get braces or still wanted them, I’d have snorted an emphatic “No!” I couldn’t have imagined myself with a mouthful of metal at the office. Braces were for kids, and I’d missed that window. No biggie. Life isn’t fair. One of my brothers got braces in his late 30’s. I never told him, but at the time I thought he’d made a vain and misguided choice.
So what changed? Why am I doing this now? Certainly the invention of clear plastic braces makes it possible. But why, at my age, when an older woman’s thoughts turn to strategies for looking younger, am I choosing braces over, say, a forehead lift, spider vein treatment, or some kind of augmentation or suction?
Am I looking for the perfect smile? No. Perfection in my case would require more work on my bite, maybe some bonding and gum grafts, and possibly a botox injection or two. That’s not going to happen. Some people get braces because they’re embarrassed to open their mouths and show their teeth. That’s not me. This isn’t a confidence issue. In fact, I can’t imagine that anyone’s response to me will be at all different with my teeth straighter.
I’m now a month into braces, and the no-snacking regime hasn’t been as hard as I thought. I guess I’m not the unalterable grazer I’d imagined. I can actually go up to six hours between meals if I have to! I’m in a phase now where lunch is sometimes a line-up of my long-favorite snacks—peanuts, popcorn, rice crackers, roasted edamame, sliced apples, carrot and celery sticks, washed down with some black tea. I feel less deprived that way. I’ve already started sneaking an occasional green tea with my trays in. I learn the best tricks from a Facebook support group. Whether I’ll drop any weight like some of the people say they have, we’ll see.
I know I’m not the oldest person using Invisalign. On one of the threads in the support group, someone mentioned that she’s 71. You go, girl! On another site, several dentists noted that they have Invisalign patients in their 80’s. Whoa.
I don’t know about them, but my impulse to get Invisalign doesn’t feel like I’m doing it for the future me and whatever intangible benefits it might bring. This desire for Invisalign seems to be about the past. It’s about a long-standing wrong that needs to be set right, a teenager’s yearning that needs to be addressed.
I find myself irresistibly more in touch with my younger self these days. I’m drawn into those feelings and desires as if they were cryogenically preserved years ago and recently brought back to life. Maybe semi-retirement these last few years has made room in my head for youthful frustrations and yearnings to creep in. I used to say that I didn’t remember much from my childhood, but now that the non-stop parade of full-time work problems doesn’t dominate my brain, more and more scenes and impressions from the past have stepped into the light.
So I seem to be making a late investment in a young woman whose logical mind just wanted something fixed and wanted to feel more special. Would her life have been different if she’d had braces back then? Would she have been a little less shy or pursued a different career path? Would she have been considered prettier and offered different opportunities at key points in her life? Who knows? I have no complaints. I’ve been incredibly fortunate my whole life. And on top of all that, I’ll soon have straight teeth!