From 15th May 2020 till 15th June 2020, EMPOWER Malaysia organised an essay competition for aspiring writers aged 13 to 23 with the theme “The Freedom to Express Myself without Fear”. Nadia Mikail, aged 23 writes about the power of self-acceptance and how it has changed her outlook on life.

Here is an interesting fact about teeth: they are made out of enamel, the toughest substance in the human body. And growing up bunny rabbit-big, sticking out and wonky-shaped, mine have had to be pretty tough. Various comments –– ranging from thinly-veiled remarks recommending good orthodontists to giggling, outright insults about how weird they looked –– have bounced off them over the years. They’ve stayed strong.

But here’s another fact about teeth: the substance that holds them together, those soft pink gums? Well, they need lots more care: lots of tender brushing, lots of gentle flossing, and lots of regular checkups. Much like the squishy tangled mess of emotions that holds a person together, they’re not so tough. Those comments may have been able to bounce off enamel, but they certainly didn’t bounce off me. I’d wave them away in the moment but go home, look at my teeth in the mirror, and grimace. I learned how to smile with my mouth closed, and how to talk behind a hand. Eventually, as I grew older and appearances began to matter more, I learned how to talk less.

One day I looked squarely at myself in the mirror and realised that, like a virus, my dislike for my teeth had spread to my frizzy hair, my square glasses, my teenage skin. I looked in the mirror and realised that I hated what I saw, everything I saw. I hated every inch of my reflection–– but I didn’t want to. I wanted to look in the mirror and think those are teeth, just teeth, and they are as strong as I am inside.

That was the turning point, but it wasn’t easy. Like my gums, my squishy tangled mess of self needed lots of tender brushing, gentle flossing, and regular checkups to finally be alright with my rabbit-teeth.

Tender brushing came in this form: being kind to myself, and my teeth, by giving my confidence the self-care it needed. I looked in the mirror and the first thought in my head was still I hate this face, but I could brush my mind clean of these thoughts: it is what I said next to the girl in the mirror that mattered. Would I say to her: Stay in more, so people won’t have to see it? Or would I ask her, Do you really hate the way your eyes are big and brown? Or your thick, healthy hair? Would you see a friend wearing this same face and think you hated it? If you wouldn’t, why do you hate it because it’s yours? I brushed my thoughts clean. I brushed them slowly and steadily. I brushed them even when I didn’t believe what I was saying. And one day I looked in the mirror and my first thought wasn’t one of self-hatred.

I focused on gently flossing away the unhealthy mechanisms that had crept into my behaviour over the years. When I smiled, I tried to smile properly, full-on and my imperfect teeth showing, the way I had always wanted to. When I laughed, I laughed unfiltered, head thrown back, mouth wide, the way I’d almost forgotten how. When I talked I actively had to keep reminding myself to keep my hand down, to tilt my head back up, to keep a napkin away: all tricks I’d learnt to make my teeth less obvious. I flossed away these habits gradually, painstakingly, and the moment finally came that when I took a picture, I didn’t say Delete it! immediately. The moment finally came that when someone made a comment about how big my teeth were, I didn’t laugh it off. I said They’re fine to me, and looked at him until he turned away, muttering something apologetic.

And I regularly checked on myself. When I felt a bad thought creeping in about how ugly I looked or how bad I felt, and the thought couldn’t go away or be replaced by another one, I let myself have that day to feel terrible. I let myself wallow, but I still checked in on myself: made myself take a long shower and cleanse my skin and eat healthily; made myself exercise and do my hair and call up loved ones. Check-ups did not only mean checking in and letting things be: they meant checking in and making sure that I was taking care of me in all the right ways, even on the bad days. If I didn’t do that, the bad days would stretch into bad weeks, and it would be a downward spiral back to self-hatred for that little girl in the mirror. I had regular check-ups, and I stubbornly told myself in the mirror that these times too would pass. They did, every time.

When I finally got braces, it wasn’t because I hated how I looked. It was for more practical reasons: avoiding damage to my front teeth, achieving a healthy bite. During my last checkup my orthodontist asked me if I wanted to keep a slight overbite or keep the braces on a little bit more, so my teeth would be movie-star perfect…

Today I still have that slight overbite. My rabbit-teeth are still big. I’m more than okay with that: I love them. I love my gums too: healthy, strong, and keeping things together. Much like I am, inside and out.

The views, opinions and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EMPOWER Malaysia.

Photo by Vincent Pelletier from Pexels

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