'Tin grin' is a fashionable teen trend

July 23, 1993|By Murray Dubin | Murray Dubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

Jessi Smith, 11, and four of her friends recently posed for a picture during an outing.

Jessi's mom, Pat, took the photograph. "They all smiled with their braces to show off. One friend, Becca, poor Becca, didn't have braces and she didn't get in the picture."

But Becca is getting them, adds Ms. Smith.

Forget "metal mouth" and "tin grin."

Those taunts of the past are as out-of-date and clunky as the braces that were bound to children's teeth 30 years ago.

"I'm in my 40s, and my sister had braces," says Janet Pizzo, of Glenside, Pa., whose son, Dan, 13, got braces in May. "In all her junior high school pictures, she didn't smile."

Dan Pizzo has no such problem.

Neither, it appears, do a great many youngsters with braces. What was a pained passage for pre-teens and teens is now a child-friendly, teeth-straightening smile-improver that carries little or no stigma.

Kids, nowadays, "want" braces.

"The number of children who ask me about braces has gone up dramatically in the past five or six years," says Center City dentist Maurry R. Leas.

"Now, we have kids showing up in the dentist's office with their parents saying: 'Everyone else has braces and Judy is concerned that she doesn't. Surely, she must need them,' " says Bill Profitt, chairman of the orthodontics department at the University of North Carolina dentistry school in Chapel Hill.

"I would say today it's very cool to have them," says Mimi Cohen, of Fitler Square, mother of Beth, 11, who's had braces since April.

"It hasn't been a problem at all. Friends say it makes her look older, more like a teen-ager. Colors? Yes, she has purple rubber bands."

How do metal and rubber bands go from dreaded to desired?

"Movies, magazines and television show everyone in America with nice teeth," says pediatric dentist and orthodontist Stephen D. Cohen. "Kids see that they don't have nice teeth and they want them."

Now, youngsters surely wanted straight teeth and gleaming smiles in days gone by, too. What's changed?

"The orthodontic experience used to be more brutal," says Dr. Cohen. "It's a lot kinder now."

Kinder includes using far less metal than in the past, and that metal is no longer stainless steel, but most often a gentler and stronger nickel-titanium alloy first used in aerospace technology. Yes, the metals attached to bicuspids today were developed for spacecraft antennas and aircraft fuselages.

So the metal is gentler, there is less of it and it is attached in a very different way.

"I've been in it 30 years now, and when I was trained," said North Carolina's Profitt, "you had to fit gold bands, fabricated individually, around each tooth, solder them and put attachments on the surface of those bands."

That process would take a long series of one-to-two-hour appointments. "Today, we don't use bands much anymore. We used bonded brackets placed directly on each tooth. We can do it in two appointments," he says.

While less pain for the patient, there remains pain for the paying parent.

Braces are not cheap. However, the price has not risen astronomically over the years.

"Orthodontic treatment in the late '40s cost more than my dad's new car," says Dr. Profitt. "And the orthodontist probably earned it. Well, it's still considered expensive today, but if you compare it to a Chevrolet, it's cheap."

Orthodontists commonly embrace that auto analogy, which may say more about car prices than braces.

Improved technology and the media-driven spread of bright smiles and straight teeth are not the only reasons for the proliferation of braces. Two more factors explain why dread has turned to desire:

Possessing a naked grin is almost out of the ordinary because so many children have braces. No one notices a "tin grin" if everyone has a "tin grin. " And secondly, the braces of today, with their rubber bands and nickel titanium alloy, are invariably in color.

Marnie Fleishman, 9, of Fort Washington, Pa., had her braces taken off in February, but still has a retainer. She had her choice of a tie-dye or sparkly retainer. She chose sparkles.

When she first got braces last summer, her mother didn't think it could possibly turn out this way. She was "a total wreck."

"She's a sensitive little girl. She's shy. We were really scared," says Marcy Fleishman, 37.

"And she was scared to go to camp that day.

"But she didn't get a negative response. Her friends were envious. She told them you get any color you want, colored rubber bands to match your outfit, black and orange for Halloween. She had neon ones.

"Then she couldn't wait to show people on the street."

LaToya Roker, 10, of South Philadelphia, wasn't scared at all.

"She was already getting ridiculed because her teeth were so crooked," says her mother, Deborah. "She couldn't wait to get braces; she couldn't wait to show them off. She has red on the top and pink on the bottom."

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