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Fashion braces: A cute and deadly trend among Thai teen girls

BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand's Ministry of Public Health is forever condemning the next underground beauty craze. There's glue-on eyelashes that can prick retinas. Toxic skin-whitening creams. Cheaply made contact lens that offer girls Pikachu-sized fantasy eyes.

But the teen fad health authorities consider the most dangerous is proving surprisingly resilient. After more than five years of health warnings, after two teenage deaths last year, some Thai girls still seek out cuteness-enhancing "fashion braces."

Braces, that scarlet letter of American junior high geekdom, are adored by some Thai teenyboppers. Those who can't afford dentist fees sometimes resort to braces attached in flea markets and living rooms by entrepreneurs with mail-order dental supplies. Though crudely applied, the braces appear genuine.

Reasons to avoid underground braces? Beyond the canker sores and sliced inner lips even legit braces offer, Thailand's Dental Council warns of blood poisoning, infected dental tools, nerve damage and swallowing dislodged fittings.


"We just think they're cute. Nice and cute!" said Supapich Konkayan, a 22-year-old art student in Bangkok. Her smile was laced with metal wiring and electric purple fittings. (The braces, she said, were real.) "Some of us have real dental problems. And for the others it's just, well, fashion."

But fashion braces are medically worthless and potentially deadly.

Last August, an amateur braces job left a 17-year-old girl in Thailand's northeast city of Khon Kaen with an infected thyroid, which led to fatal heart failure. Police in Chon Buri province have also connected an open-air, illegal braces stall to the death of a 14-year-old girl.

"Teenagers shouldn't be deciding whether to get fashion braces, for they only think of what's hip," concluded a recent Thailand Dental Council report, which describes long queues in front of quack dental stalls, which are sometimes disguised as laboratories.

"All this reflects that Thai society hasn't yet developed into a wise society," said the report. "It's a society takes advantage of the ignorance of teenagers."

Damning Thai media coverage has driven many purveyors of phony braces out of market stalls and onto the internet. Teen-centric web boards are littered with posts promising home delivery service, even to outlying provinces. The going rate: $24 per row of teeth or $45 for a full set.

One well-advertised service called "Jud Fun" — "fix teeth" in English — promotes a full-color palette of changeable dental bands for girls to choose from, as well as a customized Mickey Mouse design.

This cutesy marketing strategy is shared by licensed dentists as well. Ads for the Smile Dental Clinic in central Bangkok feature blue- and green-haired Anime schoolgirls smiling and locking hands.

Thailand is hardly the only country where braces have been regarded as both medically and cosmetically beneficial. In a 1989 New York Times profile, China's first American-educated orthodontist noted that braces had become fashionable for Chinese teens. In many still-developing nations, braces can convey wealth, or at least enough cash to straighten pokey teeth.

But young Thais interviewed about the appeal of braces said nothing about status. Real or otherwise, braces in Thailand suggest teeny cuteness, as do "big eye" contacts, eyelashes sprinkled with glitter and pig-tail hair-extensions. They also offer more facial real estate to color-code with eyes, jewelry and shoes.

"I've going to have gaps in my teeth anyway, but now they're rainbow colored," said Benjawan Intaput, a 23-year-old English student in Nakhon Pathom. "I've got all these different colors. Why not wear them all at once?"

Legit braces in Bangkok cost roughly $1,200, paid in monthly installments over three or four years. The fake sort are often associated with a scrappy motorbike subculture known as "dek wehn wehn." The word "dek" means kids in Thai and "wehn wehn" is an onomatopoeia of a two-stroke motorbike revving up.

"There are lots of kids with no money who want braces anyway," Supapich said. "They're just being cute and having fun."

But Thailand's health and safety czars, which have fought the trend since 2004, are now pursuing fake braces outlets with renewed gusto.

The government may ask teachers to request documentation from kids with braces and refer those with fashion braces to Thailand's health ministry for free removal. Anyone caught practicing unlicensed dentistry faces fines and three years in prison and the import of dental supplies will now be closely supervised by a state-run consumer protection board.

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