Mrs. Brace Face

After three years of orthodontics in middle school, our writer needed more as an adult. And Invisalign alone wasn’t enough.

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Illustration by Scott Pollack

If you’re looking for an unvarnished opinion, ask your children. Or don’t ask. Either way, they’ll probably tell you exactly what they think. 

A few years ago, my son, who was 12, and daughter, then 9, were both undergoing orthodontic treatment and had braces on the brain. “Really, you had braces?” my son asked me with over-the-top bewilderment. “Your teeth are definitely crooked,” my daughter concluded after a careful inspection with her hand and nose, practically reaching my tonsils. “Thanks,” I responded. “Make your own dinner.”

After a closer look in the mirror, I realized that my kids were annoyingly astute—my teeth did appear crowded and crooked. So I decided to consult their Bethesda orthodontist, Carmine Petrarca, despite being in my early 40s, despite the fact that I had already endured large silver braces and headgear for three years in middle school. Petrarca determined that my teeth had shifted due to factors he sees in many older patients—I had stopped wearing my retainers in college, and I was clenching and grinding my teeth (thanks again, kids). As a result, my face ached and the look and health of my smile were going downhill. 

I chose to fix these problems with another round of orthodontics, and an increasing number of adults are right there with me. More than 1.4 million adults in the U.S. and Canada received treatment in 2014, a record high and a 67 percent increase from 1989, according to the most recent data available from the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO). “A lot of people come in caring about cosmetics,” Petrarca says, “but that’s really the icing on the cake.” What’s more important, he explains, is how orthodontics in adults can correct tooth and jaw alignment and improve underlying health problems. Treatment can help with pain, plaque buildup and periodontal disease. It can prevent damage to the teeth, even tooth and bone loss. While I didn’t like the look of my teeth, more worrisome was the misalignment, which was causing my jaw pain and could have led to premature tooth loss.

Leah Ariniello in middle school. Courtesy photo

Still, it was a hard decision. I had flashbacks to my younger years in braces, when I would eat yogurt for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert because my teeth were so sore that it was even painful to chew a soft french fry. I mastered smiling with my lips closed since I was certain that my braces drew all eyes to my nose, somehow supersizing its appearance. This time, for a large part of the process I’d be able to use Invisalign, clear aligners that are barely noticeable. No wires, no metal. The popular treatment involves customized and removable plastic trays that snap tightly over the upper and lower teeth. The trays are changed out every week or two, slowly shifting the teeth into alignment. But I couldn’t start Invisalign right away. First I’d need a bite plate and traditional metal braces. Braces. Never did I imagine that I’d be in braces again. What about french fries? And the treatment would be expensive. I could think of a lot of ways to spend that money. There was a used convertible for sale up the street. I’d always wanted to go to Italy. I really needed a new kitchen counter. Instead, I was getting braces. As a grown-up. 

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