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Bracing myself

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OCTOBER 13, 2022

College is a period of big life changes — moving on from the norms of high school and creating a new you. In the vein of “Clueless” or “Princess Diaries,” a dramatic glow-up is expected, even required, when making the shift to a new point in your life. For me, however, this transition was not marked with a physical glow-up, but instead, a serious glow-down: braces. 

Like most preteens, I had braces for about a year during middle school. At this point in my life, everyone else around me also had braces so although I missed popcorn and gum, it wasn’t so terrible. It was a rite of passage. 

Also like most preteens, I neglected wearing my retainer. To be fair, it broke and when it did, I took no efforts to fix it until many months later. By then, it was too late. My fate was doomed.

 I, an 18-year-old college freshman, needed to get braces. Again

This was a devastating blow: Not only was my first year of school online, but when I did see people, I looked like my 12-year-old self. I comforted myself with the fact that masks were still required in all public spaces and Zoom’s video quality wasn’t good enough to pick up the train tracks on my teeth. 

Sophomore year, we returned to in-person classes. I still had braces on. I was meeting and greeting new people everyday, desperately trying to make friends when I felt I was a year behind everyone else. My braces were a horrible beacon, just screaming that I was uncool and unpopular to everyone I met. 

Hence, I became insecure about my uneven teeth, smiling with my mouth closed and deeply appreciating the need to wear masks indoors. Not only was my college journey stunted by the arrival of a pandemic, but I felt that I was stuck in my middle school body. My height, paired with a natural baby face and now the braces, made me feel like I was never going to get this dream college glow-up that everyone else had. 

My physical appearance made me feel locked in to an old part of my life, and it was impossible to get past it. Even though I was making friends, doing well in school and thoroughly enjoying the actual “college experience,” I was still stuck. My physical appearance stunted my growth as a person, and I isolated myself in work and school to avoid having any new social interactions. This way, I wouldn’t have to fear being ridiculed for my braces, because everyone I interacted with already knew I had them. Beyond my roommates, my boyfriend and a few friends from classes and clubs, I didn’t venture out of my comfort zone much during my first year on campus. 

Over the summer, the glorious day finally came: My braces were removed! The college glow-up I had been dreaming of was upon me at last.

And yet, nothing changed.

Everyone treated me with the same friendship and kindness they had when I had braces; many didn’t even notice I got them off until I pointed it out. 

I was shocked. To me, this was the most pivotal moment in my adult life, the moment where I would become this confident and hot college student. To everyone else, I was still Aviva. 

Turns out, my physical appearance mattered to no one but myself, especially for something as trivial as braces. The only thing that had held me back from putting myself out there was myself. When I look back on photos of myself from when I had braces, I realize that I really don’t look any different, other than the fact that in all the pictures, my mouth is kept firmly shut. 

Throughout my life, I have spent my time waiting: waiting for the perfect glow-up moment where suddenly I would be 100% confident in myself. I’ve come to realize that this moment will never come; when I got my braces off, I thought: This is it! This is my glow-up moment! 

But it wasn’t. 

When my braces were removed, my critique of my appearance didn’t disappear. Instead of focusing on my braces, now it was that I show too much of my gums when I smile or that my jeans don’t quite fit right. This pivotal moment that I had been anticipating for more than a year didn’t suddenly make me the confident person I wanted to be. It simply forced me to criticize other aspects of my appearance. I had to unlearn all of this self-criticism that I had inflicted upon myself for so long in order to truly achieve the glow-up of my dreams.

My glow-up didn’t come from taking braces off or losing weight or changing my hair, but from a much slower, internal perspective. It’s cheesy, but it’s true: Physical appearance isn’t everything. People have never treated me better because my smile was unobstructed by metal, despite what I may have thought. 

The only person who changed the way they treated me was myself; my constant criticism had the biggest impact on my self-confidence, more than what anyone else may have said to me. By replacing this criticism with compliments, this had a greater effect on my “glow-up” than any physical change ever will. 

Aviva Binder writes the Thursday column on hidden insecurities. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

OCTOBER 16, 2022