Isabella Shin
27 December 2023
When I was in middle school, I could only whistle because of the gap between my two front teeth. When I chewed gum, I used to roll it like dough on a counter, and press it between my teeth like it was a mold, peeling it off to examine my misaligned mouth. My dentist was right, and my temporary ability to whistle and observe my makeshift mouthguard was only further proof of his assessment: the roomy gap between my teeth, the slight overbite, the way all of my back teeth seemed to be in conversation with each other through their twists, turns, and sideways glances. My perfect teeth are not hereditary, they were bought.

I knew that I wanted braces, but I never thought my teeth needed fixing. I was never embarrassed that when I smiled, there were gaps and crowdings and noticeable distortions. Maybe, in time, I would have. Certainly now I look at photos of me smiling and think how grateful I am to have gotten my teeth in order, how nicely I think my teeth look all straight and in agreement. And when I eventually got my retainer that I seldom wore, I’m grateful that the biggest repercussion I had to face is the way my left tooth pushes my molars to the back of my mouth like an afterthought.

But I’m not entirely sure why I was so adamant to get my braces on. Looking back, I can only speculate—maybe I was wise beyond my years, but perhaps that would be giving myself too much credit. I think I was just slightly attuned to something I know now: how flaws can be endearing, admirable even, to people around us. So endearing that we are willing to make a special effort to draw attention to them, even if it is only to correct them. I fell victim to the strange collective middle school desire to feel accepted, but I also had faith in the sufficiency and charm of plain humanity, to me and others with cutting metal in their mouth. I have such a soft spot for my pre-teen self who, despite her better judgment and fear of the highly important social hierarchy, liked her flaws anyway. 

Somewhere along the way, I felt I had lost that wonder and enthusiasm, because I realized I had failed to contribute the heavier kind of love to the people in my life. As if that type of love refused to take root in resistance to my emotional barricades, the fear of perception and imperfection echoing in my head like a distant drum. The parts of me that I gave others were polished, and if imperfect, the good kind: the right type of ugly sweater, the brightest of dark days. Even though my love for others was fueled by the embracement and affection of their true selves, I couldn’t bring my own to the surface.

It’s the versions of ourselves we can’t help but show in a heated argument with the people we love, or more plainly, in the dead of summer. It’s in the situations we find ourselves unfiltered and without a buffer, because our moms overgeneralize our behaviors and the AC on the Metro is broken, and everything pleasant is lost to the sweat. The disillusion and pretenses, the hair gel and crispness of your linen shirt. Its glossed over and momentary unseemliness is paved over by a direct contact that is full of something much more sincere. Pure in its impurity, the same way a house grows into a home when you finally notice the chipped wood dinner table and the scuff marks on the wall—marked by the love and life that has been there first, flawed and perfect at the same time.

I’ve learned that I was afraid to take that risk; to let the blemishes mean something more. I remember after a night out, I got violently sick and threw up in a friend’s bathroom. I came out feeling horrible, the mess already made, yet she said the most encouraging words someone could have said to me at that moment: “I wouldn’t care if you threw up in my bed. It would be annoying but I’d still love you.” It felt like I was twelve in love with braces all over again, feeling as though the parts of me I thought were unlovable so plainly were, without strings and without consequence. 

It’s my own journey to seek out the love that doesn’t say “I love your smile” (anyone could say that to me, I had braces). But instead says “I would change the sheets for you just because. You can annoy me, inconvenience me, disgust me, and I would still stick around.”