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Braced for Middle Age

Avoid the tummy tuck; skip the Botox. The real mid-life upgrade is braces

“Tom Cruise wears braces.” The office manager at the orthodontist’s office smiled kindly, presenting the close-the-sale incentive in her pitch. She’d already told me that 25 percent of people currently wearing braces are adults, and that I could get gold wires—Tom Cruise had worn green—to match the 14-karat earrings that I favor in middle age. I’ve never cared much for Tom, even before the couch-jumping incident, but it seemed too complicated to explain. ¶ In fact, it was a different sort of celebrity who inspired me to get braces a month shy of my 47th birthday. I wear braces as an adult because I didn’t want to look like Eleanor Roosevelt, whose buckteeth in later life shaped her mouth into a V, detracting from the athletic beauty of her youth.

More than Botox or a tummy tuck, an eyelid lift or an affair, braces seemed the least risky and most affordable way to address the indignities and hard realities of aging. My incisors had begun to buckle and overlap. I noticed it when I was flossing and saw it cast in concrete after my initial visit to the orthodontist’s office, where a young woman with a perfect bite made a cement model of my upper and lower teeth.

I had simply wanted a retainer. That was before the orthodontist, a no-nonsense woman about my age, informed me that I had too many teeth for the size of my mouth, a predicament that no previous tooth doctor—including the orthodontist who installed my braces back in 1968—had ever mentioned. She proposed that I have four bicuspids removed and then wear wires and rubber bands for 18 months. The cost would run upwards of $4,000. The humiliation would come free.

Middle age is a second adolescence, a colleague once told me. I didn’t realize she meant that I would look like a teenager again, except with wrinkles instead of zits. For the first few months I was self-conscious whenever I had to speak to strangers, especially when the context was a business meeting. “You have braces!” the more eager among them would declare, reminding me of the time I spotted a public-television figure in an office elevator in St. Paul. “You’re Bill Moyers!” I told him, as though he didn’t know.

“You’re going to have to laugh first,” said my husband early on, “before other people have the chance to.” And so I’ve recounted funny stories about being fitted for bifocals in the same building where I have my wires replaced and tightened. About bringing my own reading material to a waiting room that stocks Teen People, Disney Adventures, and Highlights for Children. About the television that plays kiddie movies inches from my face while I recline in the dental chair, my heels hanging off the edge.

And so I’ve recounted funny stories: about the television that plays cartoons and kiddie movies inches from my face while I recline in the dental chair, my heels hanging off the edge

Two years into this ordeal, my kids consider the braces part of my identity. “Braces or slices?” I ask my 11-year-old son as I cut up his Granny Smith apple every morning. It’s our shorthand, our in-joke, my way of reminding him that we’re a family with our own customs and lingo. The “braces” cut is the bite-sized pieces, the only way I can eat an apple or a Power Bar or any other food that requires a firm bite. Happily, these small bites force me to slow down and pay more attention to my food. “Wearing braces is a great diet,” I often say.

Rather than resort to the typical regrets and reassessments of middle age, I have chosen to view this time of life as a restructuring. I decided to get braces around the same time I got serious about running. I was 46 years old, spinning my wheels in my career, and determined to adopt more healthful ways to manage stress. During a weeklong, north woods retreat with other civic-minded people from my town, I spent quiet evenings writing in my journal while the others were enjoying extended happy hours.

When I came home, I committed equally to the track and the orthodontist, enduring the competing pains of shin splints and swollen gums, of aching hips and a mouth rubbed raw from wire. Last June I ran my first half-marathon, wearing a sparkling gold smile. The braces, I see now, have been a journey. The destination: a serene acceptance that comes with age.

Amy Gage lives in Northfield.

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