On Monday night, Twelve was told she's beautiful by a near-stranger. My cousin's husband's mother, to be more precise.
It was totally non-contextualized; it wasn't like we were discussing attractiveness or anything. It was just tacked on to the end of the ritual leave-taking exchange as we got up from the table to leave:
"Goodbye, it was really nice to see you again [to me], and you too [to Twelve]. How long have you had braces? You're such a beautiful young lady," something like that. A very sincere, very kind, totally inoffensive, grandmotherly remark.
Two things, first: Yes, we know. Except for the brief period between permanent teeth coming in and braces going on, Twelve has always been an attractive person. Her whole LIFE she's been hearing that the way she looks is acceptable. This has shaped the person she is, and will continue to shape the person she is becoming.
Second: Do you want to know why Twelve is beautiful at the moment? Because of those braces. Period. If she hadn't had braces, there would be no compliments for her except for very, very feature-specific ones about her eyes or hair or complexion. She could barely close her mouth around her front teeth in the third grade. The braces went on at exactly the right time for the orthodontist to work magic with a rapid palate expander and headgear.
I can't even express how relieved I am that I was able to get braces on Twelve at the right moment. It's not that I've got thousands of dollars to throw around, either: It's a combination of partial insurance coverage, a tax return coming in at the right time, Twelve's other biological parent paying his half, and the orthodontist offering a manageable payment plan - at least, that's the financial part. The rest of it, the actual key to the whole process, is the middle class assumption that braces should happen when perfectly functional teeth don't look quite right.
Socioeconomic class differences are only partly about the money. It's our expectations that really divide us.
Middle class folks expect teeth to be made straight, so we find the money to make it happen. College is another example: Many middle class parents don't pay for their child's college education, but their kids go to college anyway because of the expectation. The kid might get a job, a Pell grant, work study, and/or a boatload of loans, but off to college she goes.
My relief, then, is partly about making Twelve's life 'better' by making sure she's beautiful. But the rest of it is about having managed to successfully enact middle class privilege; about ensuring that Twelve will fit in with the dominant class. It's astonishing to think about the differences between actual Twelve and alternate-reality-without-braces Twelve.
Actual Twelve gets the goodies in life: When she goes over to a friend's house in the historic district, she looks like she belongs. When she runs for high school student body president, her peers will vote for her. When she grows up and applies for a professional job, she will be taken seriously and regarded as an equal. Alternate reality Twelve will be questioned about her teeth by the pitying daughters of wealthy families, won't be confident enough to run for office, and will be politely passed over for the job she really wants.
Don't tell me about the person you know in x position of power in y organization who has terrible teeth; I know it's not as cut and dried as all this (and it's probably a man). My point is that adolescent teeth are contested ground in the struggle to embody class privilege, and winning matters.
That is all.