I recently whitened my teeth for the first time ever. And the last.
Two hours after I’d dropped the gooey, used strips into the trashcan, I was standing at the stove when a jolt of white hot pain stabbed my lower left incisor and traveled like a lit fuse along the nerve, through my nasal passage and deep into my eye socket.
Within twenty minutes, my teeth felt like the White City under Orc attack. You know the final battle scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, in which hundreds of thousands of Orcs launch boulders the size of Volkswagens and flaming fire balls at the White City for what seems like six hours straight?
Yeah. My teeth felt like that.
Even the slightest wisp of air was excruciating, forcing me to speak with my mouth barely open, my lips tucked protectively over my teeth.
Rowan told me I looked like a Muppet.
I took to my bed (I realize this sounds like hypochondriacal hysteria, but I assure you, it was not), emerging only to Google “relief for teeth whitening pain” and to swallow more Ibuprofen.
The silver lining was that all those hours in bed gave me ample opportunity to think about the reasons I’d whitened my teeth in the first place. After all, until recently I’d been perfectly happy with my teeth. They were straight (five years of braces, thank you very much). I had a decent smile. All in all, not much to complain about.
Until, that is, I began to notice the teeth of everyone around me, gleaming and white-as-a-freshly-fallen-February-snow.
I eyed the teeth of the SuperSaver cashier as she smiled and handed me my receipt.
I stole stealthy glances at my hairdresser’s teeth in the mirror as she styled my hair.
I even ogled my pastor’s teeth.
The truth is, I hadn’t given my teeth a second thought until I’d begun to compare them to everyone else’s teeth. And that, I believe, is the heart of the problem.
Comparison. It’s the reason why American women spend nearly $500 billion a year on beauty products and cosmetic procedures like Botox, tummy tucks and breast augmentation.
We yearn to look like everyone else: the movie stars and the models and even the mom next door. We see what they have – less gray, fewer wrinkles, more curves, a firmer butt, whiter teeth – and suddenly, the way we look isn’t good enough.
Not skinny enough, not grey-less enough, not smooth enough, not young enough.
After four hours in bed on a beautiful summer afternoon, I came to one simple conclusion:
I’m done with just one more pound lost, one more errant hair tweezed, one shade brighter, one shade whiter, a few less gray hairs and then I’ll be satisfied I swear.
I’m done with asking my husband, “Do I have wrinkles? Do I look like I’m 44? Should I color my hair? Can you see my muffin top through this shirt?”
I’m done with comparison, done with feeling less-than.
A few weeks ago I spotted two elderly ladies at the beach where I was vacationing with my family. I didn’t know anything about them – whether they were sisters or partners or best friends; whether they were longtime residents of that sleepy seaside town or first-time visitors, just there for the afternoon like me.
I watched them for a long time. I couldn’t stop staring at their broad smiles and their lively eyes, at the way they surveyed each incoming wave, waited for the perfect one, and then flung their bodies onto their boards and rode with their toes curled all the way to shore, their faces beaming.
I stood with my feet in the cold Atlantic and watched as they rode wave after wave. I saw their aging bodies – the wrinkles, the sags, the stooped shoulders, the veined legs – but it was their faces that held me rapt.
Everything about them embodied freedom, satisfaction and joy. They were two of the most beautiful women I have ever laid eyes on in my life.
I want to be like those ladies on the beach – unashamed and alive.
I want to be like those ladies on the beach, knowing without a shadow of a doubt that I have been created fearfully and wonderfully by God. Created perfect in him.
I want to be like those ladies on the beach, free and full of life.
The day of the teeth-whitening debacle, as I recalled those two ladies on the beach, I made a new declaration. I took a good long look at the crease between my eyebrows, the streaks of grey, the less-than-perfectly white teeth, the loose skin under my arms, the callouses on the bottoms of my feet.
And then I tossed the remaining Whitestrips in the trash, and set my sights on riding a surfboard with unabashed glee.