Here's the dirty little secret no one tells you about getting braces: they hurt.
I whined about this to my best friend of 19 years one day after a particularly brutal adjustment - those monthly appointments that used to be called "tightenings" - and her response was eye-opening.
"Tanika," she said, "that's because we all got our braces 20 years ago, when we were supposed to. We don't remember the pain."
And she was right. I should have gotten my braces years ago - at the normal age kids go through orthodontia - when I was skinny and awkward, with too much hair and forbidden to give my phone number to boys.
Instead, I waited until I was 32 years grown to decide to trade my mouth full of crooked teeth for a mouth full of metal.
Could I have picked a worse time? Here I am, trying to establish my professional career and smack in the middle of my prime dating years. Not to mention, my teeth had been comfortable exactly where they were for three-plus decades.
But I thought of none of this when I made the decision to straighten them. I had been putting it off for years, for various silly reasons, and had recently adopted a "no time like the present" attitude about home-buying, saving for retirement and other big goals. So I called up an orthodontist I was referred to by a co-worker and set up an appointment.
Meanwhile, I consulted everyone I knew and every Web site I could find to get an idea of what to expect. The word I remember reading and hearing most was "uncomfortable." As in, "Girl, it doesn't really hurt, so much as it is uncomfortable."
It does hurt. At 32 (well, 33 now) my teeth are not the pliable, amiable teeth of an adolescent. They're stubborn and set in their ways.
After each adjustment, my head throbs for hours and my teeth are sore, like someone did the River Dance on my gums. I can't chew or bite into anything, so I stuff myself with mashed potatoes and ice cream. In the three months after I first got braces, I gained 5 pounds.
(One plus: I had to get four teeth extracted in order to make room in my mouth for the teeth to move, and the oral surgeon prescribed hydrocodone.)
But other than that one treat, in general, my braces are annoying. Not to mention inconvenient, expensive and sometimes embarrassing.
Like the time a weirded-out 5-year-old asked her mother why that lady was brushing her teeth in a public bathroom.
I get food stuck in my braces daily. Which is fine if you're 11; not so cute at a lunch meeting with Star Jones Reynolds, thanks.
My sister's boyfriend teases me about my "grill." My dad calls me "Long Fence."
These are my grown-n-sexy years, people! I am not supposed to be the butt of junior-high jokes.
But I take comfort in a few things:
I'm part of a growing trend. According to the American Association of Orthodontists, the percentage of adults who have gotten braces since 1989 has increased by almost 25 percent. So I'm not alone. In fact, I'm trendy.
As the months go by, it gets more bearable. Soreness after adjustments doesn't last as long. The inside of my lips isn't cut raw anymore. And I've learned to skip the ice cream and eat tomato soup instead. Lycopene helps prevent cervical cancer, I read somewhere. So, there's that.
My teeth are straightening up nicely. I'm amazed every day at how pretty my smile is after only nine months.
And then of course, my personal piece de resistance: the day I went to an amusement park with my new beau (who thinks my braces are cute, btw). The man working at the "Guess Your Age" stand took a long, hard look at me and my big grin and boldly declared that I was ... 18.
Bless you, braces. You're all right with me.
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