‘Selfie time!” says Sihle, grabbing her cellphone.
“So, your plan is to not let me work?” I say with a sigh, resisting the urge to roll my eyes at my co-worker.
“Nope,” Sihle says with a cheeky grin as she jumps up from her chair in the office we share.
She walks around my desk, crouches next to me, stretches her hand, then positions her phone to get the best selfie angle.
I reluctantly huddle close to her as she smiles broadly and says, “Selfie!”
Click, click goes the cellphone camera with Sihle baring her gorgeous smile while I look . . . sheepish.
“Let’s try again,” she says after flicking through the couple of pictures she’s taken.
Looking in that camera and seeing my friend’s beautiful teeth, I’m suddenly filled with anxiety. It’s been an ongoing battle since I was 12.
Loved ones have always told me,“Either accept them or fix them.”
But it’s not as easy as just getting new crowns and smiling through life. I feelan immense sense of guilt about my self-consciousness and obsession with how my smile looks.
But would fixing my teeth mean I want to change who I am?
That I don’t believe I am enough?
Over and over again I’ve been debating with myself about these questions for the past three months. Ever since I made a decision to do something about my teeth and get a doctor’s opinion.
My dentist had tried her best to put my mind at ease regarding the procedure, but I had an internal struggle I could not get over. I manage a small group of teenage girls focusing on youth mentorship.
I worry that the decision to fixmy teeth might send the wrong message to them.
“Come on smile, hawu!” Sihle says nudging me.
I purse my lips together and turn the corners of my mouth upwards. She snaps the picture and we carry on with our work. I know my teeth aren’t the world’s worst set, but they do bother me. Have always. And that feeling won’t go away.
It's a week before the procedure, and I start to get nightmares. I dream I’m in the dentist’s chair and, as she’s about to start, the dental machinery above me gets so big it swallows my entire face.
I shrink back in horror but I can’t escape the vision. After a screaming-and-kicking session, she says, “All done. Say, ‘Selfie!’” as she hands me a mirror to look at my new teeth.
Looking back at me in the mirror is a me I do not recognise. I have two giant rabbit teeth in front and two sharp teeth coming out of the sides of my mouth like fangs. While I’m still taking this in, I suddenly notice a crowd of girls pouring into the dentist’s office.
Wearing masks and holding placards I cannot immediately decipher, they walk in silently and stand in the corner. Then frightening recognition sinks in. These are the girls from my youth group.
“You are not enough!” they begin to chant, voices joining in one after the other until I have to put my hands over my ears to try to drown out the dirge-like sound.
In the chaos, I make out Sihle’s face behind a mask as she breaks away from the group and slowly walks towards me. Out of the back pocket of her jeans she pulls out a phone and turns it towards me as she wraps one arm around me.
“Selfie time!” she says as the flash of her cellphone camera almost blinds me with its brightness. I try to turn away but she keeps clicking on the camera button, holding onto me firmly while beaming into the camera.
Click! Click! Flash, flick . . .WHEN I come to, I immediately grab the mirror on the table next to my bed and open my mouth wide to inspect my teeth.
I’m relieved – it was just a bad dream. As I lie back down and try to fall back asleep a single thought keeps replaying itself in my head: “When I can smile and laugh without feeling self-conscious, then I can live my life fully and nothing will hold me back.”
It’s like a mantra that lulls me back to sleep. We’re getting refreshments and chatting about our weekend plans after our youth meeting the next day, when Inotice one of the girls sitting quietly by herself at one of the tables.
That’s odd. Lerato is usually the one of the most sociable girls. I put together an extra plate of eats and walk towards her.“Mind if I join you?” I ask.
She shrugs and doesn’t look up.“Here, I got you some snacks. You know that if you don’t join the queue straight after the session you won’t get any – especially with Sihle over there.”
I point at my friend who always manages to arrive just in time for the snacks but always misses the meetings. Lerato looks in the direction in which I’m pointing and smiles briefly at my weak attempt to make a joke.
We both fall silent for a few minutes as I tuck in. The poor girl doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite.
“Do you ever wish you didn’t care what anyone thought about how you look?” she suddenly says.
“Why do you ask?”
I counter after a moment.“I just think life is easier when you don’t.” She looks down at her snacks.
“Thanks for the food, but I’d rather not. I’m on diet,” she says, pushing the plate away. I stare at her, stunned. I wonder how I could’ve missed this issue she seems to be grappling with.
She usually seems so confident. Then I remember last night’s dream. “I think everyone cares to some extent. It’s human nature,” I finally say.
She looks at me, surprised. “Even you?”I nod. “Even me.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” she says.
Her sincerity warms my heart. This gorgeous and kind-hearted teen thinks there’s nothing I’m insecure about – and I thought the same about her. Meanwhile we both have our own small struggles.
I look around the room wondering how many of these girls have similar issues as they grow into young women.
Even with this safe space we’re trying to create, are there challenges they don’t feel comfortable addressing because they care too much about what people might think of them?
I suddenly realise maybe I focus so much on confidence with this group that I neglect to also talk about vulnerability. I swallow the food in my mouth, run my tongue over my teeth and brace myself.
“Look,” I say to Lerato, opening my mouth wide so she can see my teeth.
She looks at them for a while then scans the rest of my face seemingly confused.
“What is it?” she asks.
“My teeth are crooked and weird, and I’m really insecure about them,” I say, the words almost tumbling over each other as I make my confession to this 14-year-old.
“I care what people say, so I don’t smile much.”
“Your teeth are fine,” she says with a nod after a short pause.I look in her face and then, in an exaggerated manner, look at her up and down.
“Your body is fine,” I say, mimicking her.
She lets out a little giggle. But then frowns again and shakes her head. She’s not convinced.
“I’m serious! Girl, with that great figure and those big, beautiful brown eyes” – I comically bat my eyelids to make my point – “you’re perfect.”
A smile spreads across her face. I place my hand on top of hers. “Lerato, you’ve always been at home in your body. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.”
She looks up and beams at me, this time releasing her braced teeth. Then she grabs her plate, takes a handful or fries and stuffs them into her mouth.
We both laugh.
There’s immediate satisfaction in watching her smile. An incredible feeling of peace washes over me. I know that both our problems aren’t completely resolved by this moment of vulnerability but this talk had given me so much clarity.
I cannot speak for the future, but for now I’m certain I want to put the procedure on hold. I want to come into this youth group every day making these young people feel like they’re valued and worthy, even if it’s just with one small compliment that affirms them.
If, in future, I decide to get the dental crowns, then that’s also okay. Because as much as I’m passionate about helping these young people grow more confident and sure of their innate self-worth, my mental health and happiness matter too.
“Selfie!” Sihle says in the car park as we’re about to drive off home in our separate directions that afternoon. Reluctantly I stop, preparing to strike a pose.
The anxiety is still there. While I’m at peace with my decision to cancel my dental procedure, the big toothy smile does not come to me naturally.
I realise it will take a while to master the art of smiling without any worries. But, just like any insecurity that anyone has, I know it’s a journey. I’m going to have to learn to fall in love with these flaws.
I wrap my arm around my friend’s shoulder and look into her camera as I get ready to take the selfie. The camera flashes and I reveal the widest and brightest smile I’ve ever shown to the world.
“Beautiful, as always,” Sihle says, admiring the pictures as she swipes through the selfies.
© TSHOLOFELO DIRE
CALLING ALL YOUNG WRITERS!
Do you enjoy writing stories? Enter our competition and you could win R1 000!This Youth Month, YOU is inviting writers between the ages of nine and 12 to send in a 500-word story on one of the following themes: your role model or your dreams for the future.
- Your role model could be anyone from your bestie to your sibling or a famous person – even your mom or dad.
- Your dreams for the future could be what you want to do when you grow up or what you hope to see for the world and how it could become a better place.
So put on your thinking caps and get your creative juices flowing – we can’t wait to read your stories! If your story is chosen as the winner, it will be published in YOU and you’ll be R1 000 richer.
To enter, email your 500-word story to firstname.lastname@example.org and also tell us a little about yourself: your name, age, school and what your hobbies are. Use the words “YOU Fiction Youth Month Competition submission” in the email subject line.The second and third runners-up will get their stories published on the YOU website at you.co.za!
Winners will be announced at the end of the month.
THIS COMPETITION IS ONLY OPEN TO PEOPLE BETWEEN THE AGES OF 9-12. THE COMPETITION IS CLOSED TO STAFF (AND THEIR IMMEDIATE FAMILIES) OF MEDIA24 AND THEIR ADVERTISING AGENCIES. THE CLOSING DATE IS 21 JUNE 2021.