I was a lucky child. There were very few things that I didn’t like about the way that I looked. It was around the time that I finally entered my “double digits” that any real insecurities began to arise.
It’s strange the little things your mind chooses to remember. Like the little boy in 5th grade who randomly chose to share his opinion that my smile was “ugly.”
Sure he was annoying to everybody, and looking back was probably just kidding or perhaps even had a crush on me (since little boy logic seems to be mean to those who you like), but it only furthered my love-hate relationship with the gapped space in my smile that I had been ‘cursed’ with at birth.
My mother had always ravished about how “I had gotten my father’s gap,” and “how cute” it was that I had inherited his smile–straight teeth and all; though it took me far too long to recognize that perk.
In my mind, my gap was the chink in my armor. In my mind, it was the one thing that ruined my toothy grin in photos and diminished me to looking like “just another black girl.”
In my mind, it was the one thing that raised my twin sister just a little bit higher than me in looks since she had a “pretty” harmonic smile.
And it was the one thing that made me want to stop smiling, inhibiting my desire to express any happiness proudly or confidently.
It’s a tough world when your own smile screws you over. When your own teeth don’t even have your back, little things begin to carry so much more weight.
It hurts to look at yourself in photos and make the quiet decision to only partake in “selfies,” since at least then you can visually construct your smile to look appeasing. Or perhaps remaining silent whenever the subject of “braces” comes up in conversations out of fear that someone will call you out for clearly never having got any.
It’s even harder trying to make a close-lipped smile look genuine when your natural inclination is to open up wide and cheese. It didn’t matter that my teeth were healthy, strong, and overall straight; I just wanted some way to get rid of my chink.
TV ads were always boasting about invisaligns and affordable dental kits to get yourself a pair of pearly whites deemed “acceptable” by eurocentric culture. I asked my mom for something–anything, to straighten out my teeth and after some initial resistance, she took my complaint to my dentist who wrote me a recommendation for a local orthodontist who would give my teeth a proper evaluation.
I still have the referral pass stored away somewhere in my room since my mom made the parental decision that that wouldn’t be necessary. I still remember at the end of 8th grade when my fellow students were electing others for fun accolades like “most likely to be an actress,” or “best male athlete,” and one of my best friends at the time unknowingly hammered into my insecurity.
“Best smile” was open for a winner and for some (likely selfish) reason, I was crushed by her saying that my twin sister should win since her smile is really pretty. Even my other friend pitched in about how straight and nice her teeth are.
It really hurt me at the time that they never even looked in my direction for even being a potential candidate.
I was convinced that my gap had ruined my smile, and I would catch myself randomly angry at my dad for even passing on the unfavorable trait.
Why did I always get all the “bad” genetics? How come I had inherited all the unfavorable genes?
I think that me being as agitated as I was by something so small was a direct reflection of my privileged upbringing.
There’s a certain level of first-world birthright that one has to have for something so minute, so insignificant, so mundane to take up as much of one’s thoughts as it did.
It took looking beyond my own self-consumed bubble of embarrassment post picture day, to see all the successful people in the media, including those of European descent, who had made it big in Hollywood while flaunting their diastema. Madonna, Zac Efron, Woody Harrelson, Octavia Spencer, and up and coming models who were changing the industry by embracing their uniqueness; never let their gaps stop them from landing roles.
But I found my biggest role models to be those right in my family who too had inherited a gap in the generation before me. Not only did my smile connect me with my dad, but it also connected me with two aunts, my grandma, and ultimately my family heritage.
My aunts sat down and literally smiled in order to point out the gaps in their mouths I never seemed to have noticed.
And the funny thing? I thought their teeth enhanced their beauty and added personality to their appearances. I thought their teeth enhanced their beauty. In fact, I always had thought that they had some of the brightest smiles I’d ever seen.
You know those smiles that radiate confidence and immediately lighten up a room? Yeah, they had those smiles.
And just like that I didn’t feel so bad about my gap-toothed smile anymore. It made me proud to feature a trait that so prominently portrayed my relation to some of the most hard-working, strong people I knew–my father, aunts, and late grandma.
It was silly to hide something so unapologetically identifying of my roots.
Now looking back, I don’t know why I ever cared so much. I’m so blessed to have the smile I was born with; straight, healthy, strong teeth, pink gums, and no cavities.
I should thank my dad a thousand times over for my healthy scot-free dental history. I should thank God for even giving me teeth at all.
So if I have a reason to be happy, you better believe I’m smiling. You better believe I’m opening right on up when people ask my twin and I to see our teeth just so they can tell us apart. You better believe I’m cheesing every time I get the chance to.
The smiler–yep that’s me. I’ll be giving myself my own accolades from now on. My teeth symbol my roots, and with my roots comes defiance. Defiance of the ordinary. Defiance of expectations. But most of all, defiance of myself.
Because you know it wasn’t just about the teeth– I don’t think it ever was just about the teeth. It was about me and the unrealistic expectations and beauty standards I set for myself.
When you’re a perfectionist, any small chink in your armor can send you falling 1000 feet to the bottom of a trench you have to dig yourself out of.
You have to hold even your own expectations at an arm’s length away. When you place that distance between yourself and your own ideas of perfection, you open up doors that only the confident can enter.
Anybody even loosely acquainted with intellectual expansion, knows that it’s not what your mouth looks like but what comes out of your mouth. It’s what comes out of it. I let that sink in a little every single day, because only your words and actions reflect your character and who you are at heart.
As I’ve gotten older, my gap has actually begun to close up with age but I swear that was life’s denouement for me. Something that can only be obtained after your personal conflicts have been resolved.
Hardly anyone even comments on my gap anymore, and maybe they never did, but now I thank it for causing the self-reflection that it did.
Interested in another narrative addressing racial issues in America? Check out my post on what it means to be called an “Oreo” in America.