The timing couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble thinking of what to give up for Lent this year. I’m not huge into fasting as a beneficial thing, as I’ve practiced enough self-flagellation in my lifetime that it doesn’t help me all that much. Once when I was younger, I tried fasting from food for twenty-four hours. In reality, I only skipped an additional snack or two, since it was normal for me to avoid cooking and eating in order to get on with my writing and reading. Cooking and eating three square meals a day would’ve put my feet to the spiritual fire. Intentionally nourishing my body and soul — that’s often the truer sacrifice for me.
I’m not a fan of giving up what’s good or needed (like food) for some ethereal higher purpose. Theologically, I think asceticism is anti-Christian. It introduces a dichotomy between body and spirit that’s confusing at best. We do not become more like Christ by abandoning our body and its needs. Christ became man so that our path to God could be distinctly human — not body-less.
But I do appreciate the practice of Lent when approached as giving up what’s easy for what’s good and necessary. Last year I gave up social media. The initial day or two was a bit hard, but once I was freed from the fear of missing out — it was, after all, only for forty days — I was free, indeed. I tapped into something my body and soul desperately needed: the headspace and time to do other nourishing things, headspace and time that Facebook had monopolized.
For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling led to give up social media this year. So what would I give up?
Enter adult braces.
Yes, folks, I am a twenty-four-year-old in need of braces. Two days before Ash Wednesday, the orthodontist glued the brackets onto my teeth, strung them up with wire, and sent me off with a goody bag full of strange cleaning tools.
Braces are insanely primitive — a whole bunch of METAL and WIRE, GLUED (yes, GLUED) to your teeth, in order to wrench bone through gums. And your body responds to them as the primitive contraptions that they are: it salivates over them as it does any foreign object. Your poor teeth ache from the pressure. Your even poorer lips and cheeks get shredded and sore until they literally callous over from the braces rubbing up against them.
P.S. The only real way to circumvent your mouth’s inner suffering is sticking wads of wax all over the brackets. Attractive.
And actually functioning with braces? Well, it’s about as gainly as walking with your shoelaces tied together. There I was on Ash Wednesday, the alto section leader, trying desperately to swallow excess saliva at every breath mark, my lips getting stuck on the brackets, my soft consonants going tacky.
It’s a great way to remember one’s mortality, in a reverse fashion — your once normal adult mouth getting reduced to a goulish metallic grin that cancels out all the maturity you worked so hard to project in your already youthful body. And by youthful, I don’t mean the sexy kind. I mean the kind where someone asks what high school you attend, even though you’re married, with a child, six years out from your last high school experience.
I haven’t even kissed my husband yet. Mostly because it hurts, but also because I feel thirteen again.
That’s really the worst part of adult braces. You’re supposed to have your teeth together by now — you’re married with a child six years out of high school, for Pete’s sake. You’re supposed to have your teeth together, and you don’t, and everyone knows it.
It’s my worst nightmare: everyone, from total strangers to my in laws to my coworkers to my beloved husband, everyone, everyone, everyone knows something weird and unattractive about myself, and I can’t do a thing about them knowing.
It’s one of those things that are private enough (or gross enough?) that nobody feels comfortable acknowledging, so it becomes the elephant in the room. You know they know about your mouth full of metal and wire, but they’re too polite to say anything, and it’s silly for you to pretend your entire mouth isn’t radically altered, but you’re too polite to weird them out with your dental sob story.
I’ve never felt much insecurity about my body, but now I feel all of it. I try not to smile too big or talk too much — mostly because, again, it hurts, but also because I’m desperately trying to cling on to control over how I appear to people. I want to be that put-together adult woman with all her teeth in a straight row, and now I look like a thirteen-year-old with obvious dental problems.
That’s what I’m giving up for Lent: my carefully curated self-image of perfection — an image that’s as unobtrusive, benign, normal, and put-together as possible. An image all can love. An image that doesn’t shock or confuse or weird anyone out. An image that invites affection and admiration. An image that doesn’t let out all the crazy and gross and problematic unless it’s on my terms.
And with that carefully curated self-image, I fostered a belief that I could only be loved and appreciated if I was lovable and appreciable in every minute way; if I was normal and benign and mature and put-together, not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature. And along with that was a belief that by being normal and benign and mature and put-together and not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature, I could ensure that people would love me.
Well, my adult braces have blown that smokescreen right up.
Being forced to give up control over a very noticeable part of my body — I am forced to realize a few facts of life that were true before I had braces, are true now that I have them, and will continue to be true when I get them off: I am flawed, and I am loved, and I can’t control either of those things.
The response to my monstrosity of metal and wire has been nothing but gracious. My preschool students didn’t notice at first, and when one did, they all demanded to see them, open-mouthed, studious — and then they moved on without a word of praise or censure. My husband asked to see them, and I said no, and he said okay, and didn’t indulge me my wild fantasies of him either having a thing for metal-mouthed women or filing for divorce at the sight of me. Nobody has done the no-you-look-good! protest that we all know is fake. They’ve just noticed and been kind. No admiration, no pity, no revulsion.
Because really, adult braces — and adults with obvious flaws — are incredibly normal.
For Lent, I’m letting myself receive grace, love, and normalcy despite those obvious flaws, dental and otherwise.
And I’m obsessively brushing my teeth.