Braces, once nerdy, have transcended their negative image

September 23, 2018 — by Oliver Ye and Allen Chen

The negative image and stigma that comes from braces

When chemistry teacher Kathy Nakamatsu woke up one morning, her mouth felt sore, a sensation lingering from the nightmare she had just escaped. The details of the nightmare were hazy, but the ache in her mouth felt familiar — even though she last wore headgear and braces as a teen back in the 1980s.

Nakamatsu wore braces for around two years starting in seventh grade. Memories of her mouth being full of metal haunt her in her sleep because having braces was a painful experience for her — and not just physically.

“I was very embarrassed,” Nakamatsu said. “I remember the rubber bands that you had to wear, and they’d shoot out of your mouth every now and then.”

Like many in that time period, Nakamatsu was familiar with the geeky, loser image around braces. Braces have traditionally been considered nerdy, but in recent years, as the dental devices have gained traction, the stigma around them has lessened.

According to The Atlantic, over 4 million people across the country now wear braces, a contrast to three decades ago, when the count was closer to 2 million.

Braces, when first used by the upper class in the 1800s, more closely resembled headgear than their current form. Eventually, the clunky headgear became less a sign of wealth and more of a major but necessary inconvenience.

It wasn’t until the ‘70s that the wired, rubber-bound brackets commonly associated with modern braces began to replace headgear. America’s youth began to associate braces with nerds or losers. Getting braces was equivalent to social suicide: a life that the nerds of classic ‘80s movies, including Katie Simpson of “She’s Out of Control” and Brian Johnson of “The Breakfast Club” knew all too well.

Nakamatsu remembers being affected by this stigma as well. She had to wear her headgear at home and at night, and she begged her parents to not force her to wear it in public. Even so, she remembers the humiliation she felt when she had to wear it outside the house.

“I have this memory of my parents making me wear headgear when we went to the mall one day, and we ran into the cutest guy at school,” Nakamatsu said. “I was mortified.”

Although most people usually get braces in middle  school, more and more adults are choosing to receive braces — even some celebrities. Tom Cruise got them at 40; Emma Watson at 26; and Faith Hill at 45.

Braces have not only lost their bad rep, but have even become fashionably acceptable — Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld models were spotted sporting the metal bands on the runway and on set for a shoot, as noted by The Globe and Mail.

Braces may have gained more acceptance due to increasing expectations regarding how teeth should look and improving technology being used in orthodontic appliances, including braces’ smaller size and more colorful design.

Increasingly commonplace, braces are no longer a stroke of bad luck but just another part of a person’s appearance.

“I thought I would look weird at first, but after I looked into the mirror after getting my braces, it seemed pretty normal,” sophomore Dylan Overby said. “I’ve had my braces since eighth grade, and nobody has noticed my braces until I mention it to them.”

Many teenagers have qualms about the physical discomfort of braces rather than their appearance. The wires and brackets can cause pain and make it difficult to eat or play an instrument.

Junior Riya Kalra, who has had braces since seventh grade, said that the first times she got them tightened, the pain would overwhelm her, leaving her unable to focus. After a few months, she became more accustomed to the tightenings.

“It’s not just straighter teeth,” Kalra said. In her opinion, the temporary discomfort is worth enduring. “Braces help prevent other problems when you get older.”

Braces not only ensure straightening of teeth, but can also prevent tooth decay, cavity formation, gum infections and even enhance digestion.

Reflecting on her experience with braces, Nakamatsu sees a shift in perception of braces between when she was a teenager versus now.

“It doesn’t seem like kids are as embarrassed,” said Nakamatsu. “I do remember a couple students being very excited because they were getting their braces off, but it seems different now.”

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