‘You’re never fully dressed without a smile’, sang little orphan Annie back in 1976. Today, however, this seemingly glib aphorism rings truer than ever, as more and more people consider the perfect smile an essential aspect of their look.
My own experience with my smile has been mixed. I’m a small person with (according to my dentist) unusually large and slightly crooked teeth, and since my early teens I’ve been rather self-conscious of them. So in October 2018, I finally bit the bullet and had braces fitted. Being 23 at the time, I was conscious that I was significantly older than the typical orthodontist patient, but decided to accept 18 months or so of (even more) frequent ID’ing in exchange for long-term gain. With a heightened awareness of my own teeth, I caught myself paying extra attention to the smiles of others and the more I looked around, the more I noticed that braces on adults are far more common than I’d initially thought.
In 2012, the New York Times reported on the growing popularity of cosmetic orthodontic treatments amongst those aged 18 and over, noting that between 1994 and 2010 the number of American adults receiving such treatments rose from 680,00 per year to around 1.1 million. By contrast, the number of children visiting orthodontists increased by only 15%. Public interest in gaining the perfect smile has only increased since then, and at the end of last year Vogue published an article entitled ‘What Do Your Teeth Say About You?’. Here, Suzanne Scott commented on new trends and technology in cosmetic dentistry, informing readers about the most popular methods of teeth straightening and warned us about which whitening fads to avoid (note to self – throw away that charcoal toothpaste).
The growth in popularity of adult braces is undeniably bound up with the ideals of our social media culture – an obsession with perfection that, while unrealistic, we are actively encouraged to pursue. We’re all aware of the fakery involved in augmented reality filters that whiten our teeth, reshape our nose and define our jawlines, and we feel like frauds when we use this technology. The next step then, naturally, is to change those things for real. In such an image-obsessed age, appearance is everything and the rise in adult braces is symptomatic of an increasingly widespread anxiety about living up to our carefully crafted, ideal Instagram selves. We strive to make ourselves in this image.
The preoccupation of braces and orthodontics with reality can also be read in the appearance of these items, which tend to be valued either for their invisibility or their distinct visibility. For many adults, discretion is key when fixing their smiles: in order to give the finished result a veneer of reality, it’s important to make the process and devices by which it is achieved as inconspicuous as possible. Clear aligners such as Invisalign, hidden braces or white braces (like my own) have become common solutions to this problem. For others though, braces are a chance to make a statement, particularly through the use of bright colours and sparkling metal. In 2015, Kitty Hayes featured on the cover of CR Fashion Book, sporting a huge grin and bright blue ceramic braces. Indeed, the shape and colour of the braces was paralleled and exaggerated by the metal collar the model also wore around her neck. Although Hayes was only 17 at the time, the magazine’s target audience is significantly older than this, and the appearance of braces on the cover of such a well-known fashion magazine (which had, the previous month, featured Beyoncé) positions them as a quirky, eye-catching and stylish accessory.
Other accessories such as teeth grills and tooth gems have also emphasised the fashion potential of teeth and the latter have been worn by the likes of Kendal Jenner, Hailey Bieber and, most notably, by Adwoa Aboah, who showed off a Chanel tooth gem at the 2017 BRIT awards. Perhaps it’s time I jazzed up my own braces with something other than spinach, before they’re removed in April…