Two millimeters was the difference between beautiful and ugly. And wider apart were the countries that determined which camp I would fall under. In order to feel more aesthetically-pleasing in one of the countries, I turned my smile into a blanket, tucking my teeth away with my full lipped grin. And when my cackling revealed my pearly whites, I would quickly hide my laughter under my hand. After all, I was in the United States of America: land of the gap-free, home of orthodontia where gap teeth are in need of a “fix.”
Fix. It was always “fix.” Never “close the gap” or “remove the space.” Perhaps one could argue that “fix” is a more efficient way to communicate the creation of a gapless smile. Fair enough. But my latter alternatives depict a neutral procedure, one in which there is no right or wrong way–only personal preference. But “fix?” The only thing you fix are mistakes or things that are broken. And so, according to American dental standards, my gap teeth are a problem to correct.
When I came to North America, I quickly learned about the wiry metal contraptions called braces. Throughout grade school, I saw them attached to my peers’ teeth, not really knowing their purpose. Eventually, I found out that they straighten teeth. But along the way, I also discovered that some of my friends got them so that they could get rid of their gap, thus meeting the gapless beauty ideal.
Since I was a jobless, young grade school girl, I could not afford to buy into this beauty standard so I hoped that my father would do so on my behalf. One day after he picked me up from school, I told him, “Dad, I need braces,” hoping his response would affirm my desires. Instead, he asked, “Why do you need them?”
“I need to fix my gap,” I remarked, pointing at the tiny space between my incisors.
“You don’t need braces, Mary. Your teeth are fine.”
This was not the response I wanted. In my tween brain, his response registered as further proof that he wanted to make my childhood miserable. Then he went on to explain how, in Nigeria, gap teeth are a sign of beauty. “People will actually go and cut their front teeth to get a gap,” he informed me. I was wide-eyed in disbelief, imagining what that process would look like. This newfound perspective made me feel confident about my smile every time I returned to Nigeria. But it did nothing for me as someone living in the United States.
While living in America, I found a lot of happiness when coming across another individual with gap teeth. In my mind, we were members of some club, the “Gap Teeth Gang” if you will. But over time, I saw a number of them get braces or Invisalign mouth trays. Their two front teeth were automatic sliding doors that became permanently closed.
My imagined siblinghood I had with them was over and I was left to fend for myself, figuring out how to properly smile in a society that sees my teeth as something to fix.
And sometimes when I was in front of my mirror, I would carefully put saliva in between my two front teeth so that, from far away, I knew what I would look like with a gapless grin.
* * *
During my freshman year in university, I opened up to a friend, telling her how I was insecure about my gap teeth. We were walking on the sidewalk toward the university trolley stop under the evening the sky. And while her face was a bit hard to see, I heard her voice clearly.
“Yeah…you should probably keep that to yourself.”
She might as well have slapped me in the face because her words stung. And the embarrassment took the form of uncomfortable tingles that spread across my face like wildfire. She had a point, though. I should have kept that information to myself. I should have kept my mouth shut about it in front of her and shared it with more trusted friends. And I did a few times; one friend said they noticed and liked it while another said they did not even realize I had one. Either way, I still saw my gap as a flaw in need of repair. And since my father did not let me have braces when I was a child, I figured that once I graduated from university and had a stable job, I would purchase Invisalign teeth aligners.
But before that day came, I began to grow fond of my gap. Sure, there were times that I caught myself covering my mouth when I giggled. There were also times that I intentionally hid my toothy smile with a closed mouth. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that I started to adore my natural smile.
For some reason, this small change in perspective also sparked some curious investigation about the perception of gap teeth beyond America’s and Nigeria’s popular narratives. Soon enough, I stumbled upon the idea that gap teeth have also been symbols of sexual promiscuity. One notable demonstration of this can be seen in a popular fiction classic called Canterbury tales. The author, Jeffrey Chaucer, introduces the wife in a very sexual manner and mentions her gap teeth, a feature commonly used to represent lust and sensuality.
I also found out that, in French culture, gap teeth are called les dents du bonheur or “lucky teeth.” I found this out after reading an essay by Kristyn Filip called How I Learned to Love my Gap Teeth. In it, Kristyn mentions that “those with the coveted gap are are said to have good fortune follow them through life.”
Much like when my father told me about the positive perception of gap teeth in Nigeria, knowing about these other perspectives did not do much for me as someone living in America; it was interesting information though. But just because it did not serve as ammo for my self-confidence does not mean that I did not come to fully embrace my teeth on my own terms.
I can say with 100% confidence that I will not ‘fix my gap’ because there is nothing to fix.
I like my gap’s quirkiness and the extra character it brings to my appearance. I view it as a symbol representing the fact that puns crack me up. Normal people groan; I guffaw. It also represents my tendency to be silly when I am dancing. It symbolic of the random voices I make when I am very comfortable around people. Some people may find two millimeters as the difference between beautiful and ugly. But to me, it is one of the features that simply symbolizes various characteristics about myself that make me…well, me. 🙂
For those of you who have tagged along with my blog for awhile, you know that this is not the first time I have talked about beauty from a personal perspective. I discussed colorism in my post called Thoughts on Beauty Perception and unpacked my perspective on both the Dark Girls and Light Girls documentaries. I have also discussed my journey with embracing my Afro-textured hair and expressed my love for my stretch marks in this essay I wrote on The Huffington Post. When comparing this essay to my essay on my stretch marks, I found that the one on stretch marks romanticizes my so-called “flaws” while this post is more of a nonchalant acceptance of an “imperfection.” The former critiques society and asserts that stretch marks, a supposed blemish, are actually beautiful. Meanwhile, this essay says, “Hey, I have this thing and I think it represents my personality. People think it’s a flaw but I think it’s pretty cool.” Here, the different beauty standards are mentioned but are left without critique. The differences between my two essays inspired me to come up with writing prompt for you. The next time you want to write about beauty, consider the following prompt: