I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night, but I remember this moment like it was seared into my psyche: I was in third grade, sitting on the bathroom counter, looking in the mirror. I was scouring my face for any signs of future beauty. What I saw disgusted me.
Prior to this, I’m sure I thought I was cute, if I thought of myself at all. But around this time my permanent teeth had come in, and by doing so, shaped my entire sense of self-worth. I had “vampire teeth” – the pronounced canines that grew nearly in front of their friends. There was no sense of order, it was a mouth of chaos! My two older sisters had perfect teeth. My mother had perfect teeth. What was the deal? What had I done to end up with these?
I remember sitting there stabbing at them with my index fingers in an attempt to smoosh them back into their normal spots. I probably devoted a good fifteen minutes to this exercise before I realized it wasn’t going to work. I would need a lot more time of finger-smooshing. It was entirely unfair. It was then I looked in the mirror and said, “I’ll never be pretty.”
That was a horrible day. I remember everything about it. I keep it in a special folder in my head along with the other instances from my childhood where things were said that made me curl protectively in on myself just a little bit more, like an old leaf on the ground. I remember one in particular – I was walking with my two sisters on the beach. The meaner of the two turned to me and said, “You don’t even leave footprints in the sand! You’re dead!”
I’d struggled (if that’s the word) with my weight my whole life up until that point. I was skinny. It wasn’t intentional on my part, I just had a hard time putting on weight. Mom used to give me this horrid grape-flavored syrup that was an appetite stimulant. To this day, I detest anything grape -flavored.
So here I was – underweight and “dead” with vampire teeth. In addition, I’ve always had cold hands and feet. This furthered the ‘undead’ thoughts. What the -? Who had I pissed off in a previous life to be walking around thin as a rail with permanently cold extremities, and teeth that would have made a walrus stand up and take notice?
It didn’t really start to hit me, however, until high school, that time when everyone is supposed to look their best. And, of course, that time when we all have an invisible audience watching our every move. My best friend since 5th grade, Millicent, used to say, “I love your teeth!” I would “Pfffftttt!” at her. Of course she loved my teeth, she loved me. Her opinion couldn’t be relied upon. I mean, that’s what friends do, right? It’s not like she would turn to me and say, “OH. MY. GOD! I can’t be friends with you anymore. I’ve just noticed your teeth!” Millicent had braces – twice. The odds of me getting braces in my single-parent family were the same as monkeys spontaneously flying out my ass. Not real good.
By this point I’d developed a system – if I was around anyone that wasn’t my immediate family or closest friends, I would cover my mouth when I smiled or laughed. There are scores of pictures of me covering my mouth while laughing. It’s hard for me to see these. There’s laughter in the pose, in the eyes, but there was a grain of thought that made me halt in the joy long enough to cover my mouth. Yes, the vampire teeth defined me because I let them. Because I didn’t heed Mill and realize I was just as good as anyone else. My teeth and socio-economic status didn’t make me any less than the Guess-wearing, BMW-driving posh girls at the school.
With my first job, and my first paycheck, I took myself to the dentist. No joke. The funny part? I have perfect teeth – I don’t get cavities. My teeth are strong. The dentist was so astounded that I’d not had an exam in 14 years and yet had no cavities that he called in the entire medical staff at the next office to gawk at my “perfect” teeth. Yeah, great – the vampire teeth were strong. I get it.
When I got married and had my eldest child, I had a good job. Things were going well financially. It was time. I asked my dentist to refer me to an orthodontist and I got braces. I was in my mid-20s. When I called Millicent and told her she said, “I loved your teeth! They were unique. They were different! They were you!” Well, what do you know! She hadn’t been blowing sunshine up my ass all those years- she truly liked my teeth. In her wedding photos, I’m smiling with my metal-mouth. Smiling broadly. The photos are hilarious. I look like I’ve got the GW Bridge attached to my face – but I look happy.
My friend Mark asked me recently why I’m so hard on myself. “I don’t get it – a good-looking lady like you, why do you put yourself down all the time? What’s with the constant self-deprecating comments?” I told him it was a “long story” and it is.
Sometimes, when I’m tired, I’ll catch myself covering my mouth when I smile. I always pull my hand away, stand up a little straighter, and smile genuinely, because you know what? That little girl in all those pictures was a pretty young thing. If only she had known it at the time.