It’s at times like this that I simply don’t understand fashion trends. I mean, what would prompt otherwise normal teenagers to consider something as horrendous as braces to be a fashionable accessories? Don’t get me wrong, I think braces are an extremely useful dental tool and I used to wear them as well, but I always dreamt of the day I would be done with them forever. Kids in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and China, however, think very differently. For them, braces have become a huge teenage fashion statement.
As unfathomable as the trend sounds, there’s actually a reason behind it. Just as ‘plump’ people were thought to be attractive at one point – as a sign of prosperity – braces to the Asian kids are a sign of wealth, status and style. The reason: genuine orthodontic braces are quite expensive. A set of braces in Bangkok would set you back about $1,200. So all the kids want to wear what the rich kids are wearing. Braces are also popular among young celebrities and youth icons like Indonesian heartthrob Andika Kangen and Thai pop singer Earn the Star. Many Thai and Indonesian websites display pictures of Gwen Stefani sporting braces back in the 90s. Apparently, she had recently confessed that her braces were a ‘fashion choice’, and she’s since become an instant hit with Asian kids. The internet is littered with countless blogs and websites on fashion braces. I tried googling them and found that braces are available in an explosion of colors and varieties.
So what about the kids who don’t really need braces; how do they keep up with the fashion trend, you ask? Simple – fake braces. The market is completely flooded with a host of fake and knockoff braces that can be purchased for as low as $100. In Indonesia, these are called kawat gigi untuk gaya or behel and the best part of using them is that you don’t need consent from a medical professional. All you need to do to get one is visit the local beauty salon – where beauticians will be all too happy to slap a pair on your teeth at an affordable price. If you’re more into DIY, you can purchase kits from stalls at local markets or even online. Not only do you get them in a variety of colors, you can also get special designs like Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse or just plain flowers. To use the fake braces, you press the wire to the desired size, insert the ends between your last two molars and you’re good to go.
As exciting as fake braces are, they do have a downside. Apparently, wearing them for long periods of time poses some serious health risks. Real braces come with risks of their own, such as decalcification, tooth decay and mouth sores, but reports in the press have suggested that these fake contraptions might even be deadly. The use of fake braces is said to have caused the death of two Thai teens, so far. They caused a thyroid infection in one 17-year-old in the Thai city of Khon Kaen, resulting in a fatal heart failure. Another 14-year-old from Chonburi died after using braces that she purchased from an illegal stall. Because of these incidents, the Thai government has imposed a ban on the import, production and sale of fake braces. Anyone caught selling them can be imprisoned for up to six months, and has to pay a heavy fine of about 50,000 baht ($1,300). Importers have it worse; they can get sentenced to one year in prison. The government took these strict measures after studies showed that the metal used in fake brace wires contained lead.
Unfortunately, these measures have had the reverse effect of what was intended. Now there’s an entire underground ‘fake braces black market’ blossoming around the silly fashion accessory. DIY kits are still sold online and in flea markets, on the sly. Fake braces have become popular with the rebels now, and are associated with a scrappy motorbike subculture called dek wehn wehn (Dek – Kids, wehn wehn – the sound of a motorbike revving up). In Indonesia, however, things aren’t so bad, because sales are still legal. But it’s a different kind of ‘weird’ there, because adults have caught up with the fashion trend started by kids. This might sound pretty strange to those who have grown up in the Western world, with childhood scars of having been teased about their braces. Well, at least it’s some consolation that somewhere in the world, kids are at peace with their braces.