Faux Braces ooze Status
All the trendy girls in Indonesia are wearing braces. Not because they have a major concern with improving their occlusion or jaw alignment, but because it is fashionable. In a strange twist of sartorial codes, the usually stigmatised orthodontic food trap, called kawat gigi in Bahasa Indonesia, have become a major trend. Teens and adults display their spending power by sporting mouths full of metal, accessorised with coloured bands and attachments. Some want the look so bad they are even buying fake braces.
Fake braces, from permanent types to removable, retail for up to USD$100 according to Palembang dentist Dr So Liong Kim. The removable ones are like cheap costume jewellery for the mouth. The permanents are much more expensive and fit either in dental clinics by dubious dentists, or, according to Dr Kim, a licensed dentist, in salons by non-professionals with no obligation to de rigueur oral hygiene. Consumer culture drives imitations, so as braces have become signs of affluence and status symbols thanks to the thriving market of fakes.
Dr Kim said it is easy to get fake braces from a salon where they will put them on anyone who pays. “They don’t have to go to a licensed dentist and pay a lot of money; they can just go to a salon for fakes. But after they start having problems, they come to me to take them off,” she said.
For style conscious teens that are used to throw away fashion, what mock braces lack in safety and orthodontic benefit, they make up for in cool. It is not only youths though, that express social meanings through style. Adults, mostly women, are also commonly seen wearing braces; for example, in Hotel Aryaduta in Palembang, it is hard to find a female adult staff member who is not fitted out with metal rows and brightly coloured bands flanking her teeth.
Where in the West, adults rarely sport braces because braces are perceived as predominantly for torturing teenagers, in Indonesia it is not unusual for women in their forties to seek to correct their teeth. However, Dr Kim believes mature women do not wear braces for fashion, and it is only the younger generations that have taken braces-as-style-icons to the level of faux fashion, creating a market for new products, and for scammers.
The popular use of braces as a signifier for trendiness raises serious concerns about the orthodontic necessities of patient’s braces as well as the possibility that braces are recommended carelessly by professionals as well as quacks. For example, Karyati (uses first name only), who wears striking pink attachments on her braces, said her dentist issued her with braces to “strengthen” her teeth after she had her gums lasered.
Karyati insists that even though her teeth were already straight, her braces are genuine and not the fashion type.
“My braces are real,” she said. “The dentist told me I needed to wear them in order to strengthen my teeth after I had my gums lasered. But other people wear braces for fashion instead of necessity. They are popular for that reason”.
According to Dr Bhandari from Platimun Dental Australia, if a patient is fitted with braces and fails to have suitable Orthodontic observation from a professional, then they can suffer from decalcification of the teeth, which will lead to Caries (decay). The treatment might also result in misalignment of the patient’s teeth and TMJ (temporal mandibuler syndrome). She also said using braces to strengthen teeth is not a usual practice.
“I have never heard of the practice of fitting braces to strengthen teeth. However, braces can sometimes to be fitted to help improve hygiene control if teeth are crowded” Dr Bhandari suggested.
If bonafide just means ‘fit by a real dentist’, then it does not indicate a real need for braces has been demonstrated. It is dental treatment like this that raises contentions about dentist’s readiness to prescribe expensive braces to, albeit, willing customers, and the ease with which patients (or rather, fashionistas) can obtain unnecessary or illegitimate braces from faux dental practitioners in salons.
Thailand for example, experienced a similar fad in fashion braces, but their Consumer Protection Board banned fakes and unlicensed practitioners after several incidents. According to a report in The Thailand Post, in one case the death of a young girl from septicaemia in 2009, who had fakes put on by an unlicensed practitioner, has led to a crackdown on stalls, salons, and suspect dentists in a bid to curb a trend that exploitation has made dangerous.
Unlike fake ipods, fashion braces pose a health concern because they can cause sores and cuts in the mouth which can lead to infection, they can cause teeth to have to be removed, and pieces can break off and be swallowed or choked on.
Although braces meet an aesthetic need, they are foremost an orthodontic apparatus that alters the shape of the jaw, mouth, and teeth.
Dr Kim said she does not fit braces on patients unless they need to correct their teeth, but said, “I have a lot of customers, mainly young people, who want braces and it’s definitely more for a fashion statement than a treatment for real oral problems like misaligned teeth, overcrowding and joint pain.
“Not everyday, but every week I have teenagers asking for braces,” she said. “Some do not need them at all. Just last week I had some teenagers come in wanting removable braces for IDR100 000 (about USD12.00)”.
The lack of stigma in Indonesia shows how a different social, cultural and economic context can reinscribe new meanings over conventional ones. Braces have long been the subject of taunts like ‘train tracks’ or ‘metal mouth’, and despised in the West by teens who begrudgingly comply with their parent’s desires to fix their teeth. But in Indonesia, braces are not considered an unsightly prosthetic for eventual beautification and repair, they are themselves an accessory that connotes meanings like disposable income, youth and modern consumer culture. The braces craze illustrates expressive aspects of modern Indonesian consumer culture such as affluence and personalisation, as well as distinctive Indonesian tendencies to re-work codes of fashion and style to create new meanings and connotations.
Even in Indonesia braces are expensive, costing around US$500-$1000. This is a lot of money when 13% of the population earns less than US$2 a day and the middle class are those who have an income of over $57 a week.
In Indonesia though, beautification and transformation is a comparitively frivolous pursuit to the many millions of people struggling financially. Consumption is used to differentiate affluence, even if it means employing a confusing paradigm of imagery. Fashion braces are a display of style that replaces a dental device with pure aesthetics. The idea of personalising braces with coloured bands is attractive to modern consumer cultures that learn to stylise and express their identities through consumption practices such as the way consumers are encouraged to personalising commodities nowadays. However, these consumption practices are still bourgeois notions in Indonesia, intersecting with newly imagined ideals of style, wealth, and status in an emerging middle class geared toward conspicuous consumption.
“They are painful, uncomfortable and expensive,” agreed Karyati, while cheerfully flashing a hot pink grin. Karyati is probably still smiling through the throb of ulcers because she knows she is part of an in-crowd with her expensive braces. Couldn’t she have just bought a designer handbag for the same credibility? Fake braces have become so ubiquitous that like fake handbags, everyone has one and no-one really bothers to differentiate between the real and the fake. Knowledge of signs is the most important thing.
The Louis Vuitton sign for example, has been processed through the simulacra machine so fully that the original meanings have virtually been emptied out through re-presentation, so that even if one were to carry around a Louis Vuitton bag, it would be have ambiguous authenticity. That is, no one would believe it was real, yet it still connotes luxury and fashion.
Meanings change in different social, cultural and economic contexts so that when braces once meant enduring ugliness and pain for an eventual outcome, the appliance is the outcome in itself, an accessory signifying affluence and up to date trendiness. The strangeness of fashion braces appears with an analogy to other splints and prosthetics such as those used for broken bones. Imagine fashion casts…would people without broken legs and arms ever get themselves fit out with fake casts and hobble round with co-ordinated colours and their many friends’ signatures just to be trendy? It probably sounds crazy now…
If the braces fad does anything, it illustrates how in Indonesia, meanings can be turned upside down. Braces are in right now, and as the lisps of pretty Indonesian hotel staff with tender mouths illustrates, pain makes beauty and braces are a statement of style.