"The pursuit of perfection, then,
is the pursuit of sweetness and light."
When I was younger, my two front teeth decided to grow in opposite directions causing a little gap between them and I also had an underbite. It looked like I was continually pouting, which wasn't too far from how I felt life to be in junior high and high school. As all my friends started getting braces in 7th, 8th and 9th grades, part of me wanted to belong to the "cool kids club" and do the same. I wanted to complain about the appointments needed to tighten the metallic oral contraptions too, or switch up the colorful rubber bands every few weeks just in time to match the holidays. But, my family couldn't afford it and while I was willing to do whatever it took to help me fit in a bit more, the other part of me was also very hesitant to do anything that would draw attention to my already awkward appearance.
My aunts and parents told me regularly that I wasn't pretty, that I was too brusque, too selfish, too anything-but-perfect. They said I laughed too loud and when it came to many of life's events, I didn't understand the ways of the world. "Ni bu dong shi!" they would exclaim again and again.
Inside, I believed they were wrong. But outside, with the adults colluding around me and puberty beginning to hit, I thought they were right. As I became more aware of my body image and reflection, I noticed that I had a bit of a mustache and got teased at school incessantly because of it, especially from one particular bully who'd point and laugh and then elbow his friends in the ribs to get them to point and laugh, too. Ultimately, I felt so out-of-place growing up that I would spend most of my teenage and young adult years straining to look prettier on the outside in hopes that eventually, it would seep deep into my insides, too.
My parents were unsympathetic and told me to simply bear it, that I shouldn't care how I looked anyway. There was no consolation, no heartfelt encouragement, nothing but more distance and pushing back. Decades later, I can see that if they were projecting "tough love" onto me, then inevitably, they were treating themselves that way, too.
The moment I was legally able to get a work permit, I immediately aimed to pay my own way for everything — at 15 1/2. I got two part-time jobs after school and would catch the bus from one location to another, before finally getting home and plopping down on my bed out of exhaustion, waking up past midnight to do my homework, then rising extremely early to start the day all over again.
My parents were angry at me that I was working, at times ferociously upset that I was supporting myself financially, perhaps because it reminded them on a regular basis that they couldn't provide in one of the most primary ways that was a part of their natural roles in our lives.
I took the money I earned, not to spend frivolously at Contempo Casuals or the GAP at the mall, but to pay my way through SAT prep school and for all of my college applications. I'm now amazed that I took control of my life to actively make it different from how it could have been. I often wonder why it was that my siblings and I, all four of us, turned out with big wounded hearts rather than towards drugs or louder forms of rebellion. Instead, despite the pains we carry, my younger sister and two younger brothers are some of my favorite people and among the funniest I know.
By the time I got to college, and subsequently entered into my second long-term relationship, I thought it'd be okay to get braces. (Finally.) And so, with my own money from the updated two part-time jobs I was working in college, I spent part of it on fixing my teeth.
My orthodontist loved me, because I did exactly what he said. It may have been the fact that I was now eight years older than his average client, but if he told me to wear rubber bands every day, I wore them every day. If he told me to wear my retainer at all times, I did. And every time I came back for a check-up, he would happily smack my shoulder and just beam with pride.
"You do so good!" he'd say in a thick Mandarin accent. I'd smile back broadly, displaying my silver grille at his affirmations.
I wasn't the first in the family to get braces — that was my younger sister. My parents, as seemed to be the pattern, would spend very little on me, but would willingly invest more with my younger siblings. By the time I finished my orthodontic regimen, my sister's teeth were becoming crooked again, because her diligence and desire to continue wearing retainers after getting her braces off was a bit less than mine.
Tough love has it's benefits. Because I worked my ass off to get the things that I wanted or needed, I valued them more. I wore my retainer all the time, regardless of whoever might see me, because I wanted my teeth completely straight after the years they were in lockdown. Yet, in recent years, I've come to see that the braces were just another example of always feeling like there was something in me that needed to be fixed. I wasn't whole, I wasn't complete, I was imperfect and needed to remedy that somehow.
My friend Kate in high school was the popular girl. We became friends because we both had to re-take a Math Analysis course in summer school, and I used to count my lucky stars that this was so. She was a teeny sprite, half-Asian half-Spanish, and gorgeous. I distinctly remember, one afternoon at her house as we were studying for an exam, she remarked about her teeth and how the bottom few were somewhat crooked, but she loved them anyway, because it's what set her apart from others, the distinctive way in which these couple of teeth kind of bunched together. This is a girl who was often booked in commercials and music videos, someone who seemed so carefree, because it was as though her life were filled with one blessing after another.
In that moment, I saw that she loved herself completely. Even in the horrendous high school years, she could care less about what other people thought. She had a unique style, a broad smile, and a giving heart. She knew that she wasn't perfect, but she was perfectly happy with that awareness. Everyone around her loved her just as she was, and she didn't need to do anything differently to be regarded so highly. All she had to do was be herself, which she was taught how to do at a young age by her nurturing and affectionate parents, a couple who I often wished could adopt me in some tiny, tiny way.
Lately, I've stopped wearing my retainers so much. It's part laziness, somewhat because it's now almost ten years since I've had them (and maybe that's a little expired now that I actually think about it), but also because I'm finally starting to like my idiosyncrasies. Little by little, I'm starting to feel free to be who I am regardless of what other people say or think. To be loud and goofy and burst out in a random dance move in front of someone else if I feel so inspired.
When I let go, I'm pretty damn funny. As my beau likes to say, "Oh, you've got yokes," in a silly accent. And, I find that when I teach yoga and I let go of the thinking or the wondering "Is this good enough?" mentality, then everything flows so freely and I'm able to pull ideas from the deep recesses of my brain that I didn't even realize I remembered, things I can't access when my overworked mind is cluttering everything up.
So, I feel that the more crooked my teeth become, likely noticeable to no one but me, then the more I give myself permission to be exactly who I am, in my entirety. Imperfect, and perfect precisely for that reason.