Operation Smile: How Jaw Surgery Changed My Life
For years, Martha Hayes was bullied for being ‘goofy’. An operation at 18 gave her a new self-confidence, but would it last?
Martha Hayes: ‘The closest thing I recall to a compliment was: “You’d be pretty, if it wasn’t for your teeth.”’ /Photograph: Sophia Spring for the Guardian
“Skinny, ginger, goofy bitch.”
I was walking to school one morning when I heard this from a girl I’d never seen before. She threatened to “get a hammer and knock my teeth in place”. I was 12, and recognised the girls on either side of her, egging her on, because they had been my friends at primary school. Now, here we were, pupils at rival schools, standing on opposite sides of the road, like something out of West Side Story.
Skinny. Ginger. Goofy.
Skinny was hardly an insult. I had two gorgeous older sisters I looked up to; I understood the merits of being a beanpole, and was well on my way to 5ft 8in myself. Ginger was trickier, but there was always Sun In or bleach-at-home highlighting kits. Goofy, however, wasn’t something that could be so easily remedied.
I dreaded that walk to school for the next six years. I didn’t need a stranger to tell me I was goofy: I had a battle-axe grandmother who once compared me to Ken Dodd. I was the youngest of four children, covering my mouth instead of smiling in photos, in case I ruined the picture for everyone else. The closest thing I recall to a compliment was: “You’d be pretty, if it wasn’t for your teeth.”
As the months went by, so did the chunky-heeled Kickers, Kappa jackets and multicoloured tram tracks. I knew what people were thinking: “Why doesn’t she just get a brace, too?” But this was more complicated than failing to keep up with everyone else at my all-girls school on Merseyside. I wasn’t just gap-toothed; I was on-the-waiting-list-for-a-jaw-operation goofy.I wasn’t just gap-toothed; I was on-the-waiting-list-for-a-jaw-operation goofy
“While it’s normal to have an overbite – most people do – yours is… quite significant,” the dentist explained on a routine checkup in my first year of secondary school. The 13mm gap between my upper and lower front teeth was not something that could be fixed by a brace alone. So the term maxillofacial jaw surgery was bandied about; the promise of a perfect smile dangled in front of me – only with a catch: I’d have to wait until I was fully grown, so a fixed brace would be fitted only when I was 16, before an operation on the NHS two years later.
It was, at times, an agonising wait for a sensitive, emotional teenager with a forehead of acne and a mind that was always elsewhere. I dreamed of being an actor and was desperate for boys to notice me. I’ll never forget my first holiday abroad, aged 13. Me, scurrying behind my blond, blue-eyed older sister Cathy as she strutted down the hill at Lake Garda in a body-con dress to the sound of car horns beeping. My mum, consoling me with a chocolate sundae as waiters nicknamed Cathy “Miss United Kingdom”: “Just be patient, love. In a few years, you’ll be fighting them off.”
Skip forward to February 2000, when I had just turned 18. I was a sixth-form student going through a bit of a grunge phase; a virgin who’d never had a boyfriend and whose self-esteem was deeply tied up with my appearance. (“I hate the way I look, the way other people see me,” I wrote in my teenage diary. “I feel inadequate, pathetic and useless.”)
But, significantly, I was about to go into hospital for five days, finally, to have “the op”. In a gesture of support on my last day at school, my favourite teacher gave me a copy of the Philip Larkin poem Born Yesterday. Its message that true happiness has nothing to do with beauty, talent or fame was, I’m ashamed to say, lost on me.
Settling into the maxillofacial unit the day before surgery, I was too worried about the immediate after-effects to think about the long-term benefits. I was going to be under general anaesthetic and knocked out for about four hours while they cut through the lower jawbone and realigned it. I would be swollen and numb, bruised and bedridden for at least a fortnight. I was to be put on a strict liquid diet; it would be another six weeks before I could eat solids.
Awake at 6am the next morning, I was moved into a small breakfast room with a handful of other patients while, as the nurse explained, they temporarily cleared the ward. The older lady in the bay next to mine had passed away. She had throat cancer, and I had heard her crying out in pain during the night. The realisation that I was taking up a bed for a cosmetic procedure when people around me were so seriously ill was like a punch to the stomach. By the time I was wheeled into the operating theatre at 9am, I felt like the worst person in the world.
Martha Hayes at 13. /Photograph: Courtesy of Martha Hayes
I came around at about 1pm to the sound of beeping machines and enough wires to assure me that I now at least resembled a very sick person. There were bloody tubes on each side of my jaw, an IV drip in my arm and I was wearing an oxygen mask, which distracted me from noticing, at first, that my face was so paralysed by the swelling, I was unable to open my mouth or tilt my head to the side. I dreaded to think what I looked like, but I had a fair idea when I saw my older sister, Becky, walking towards me, struggling to hide her tears. “I’m sorry, it’s just a bit of a shock,” she whimpered, nervously spraying me with the Ralph Lauren Romance I’d got for my 18th birthday; at least I’d smell nice. When I looked in the mirror, my face was three times its size.
Within a week, the swelling settled down. I still felt self-conscious (and resistant to visitors, bar family and close friends), but it was different from the kind when I had my photograph taken in the past. I couldn’t feel the lower half of my face, and my fixed brace wouldn’t be removed until summer; but I was definitely a work in progress.
Two weeks after the operation, I was back out on the town with my friends. I had bought my first black leather knee-high boots for the occasion. I remember feeling awkward and lanky standing at the bar, drinking bottles of WKD through a straw, but with newly defined cheekbones and dimples when I smiled; my front teeth were no longer the first thing people noticed. That night, “the most gorgeous guy… completely out my league” (I later recorded in my diary) approached me on the dancefloor. I couldn’t actually feel my lips when we kissed, but the gratification was instant.
Martha Hayes aged 21 with her sister, Becky. Photograph: Courtesy of Martha Hayes
That spring was packed with 18th birthday parties and flings with unsuitable boys when I should have been revising for my A-levels. I remember my mum saying, “You’ve got two choices: you can either work hard and go to your first choice of university [I was predicted high grades], or fool around and go to your second.” Unknowingly, I chose the latter. I was having too much fun to care as much as I used to. When you’ve spent your formative years trapped in a mindset that you’re not good enough and then – seemingly overnight – you’re considered physically attractive, it’s a bit like being given a get-out-of-jail-free card. By that summer, I had my first proper boyfriend. I felt invincible.
Clearly my confidence was only skin deep; underneath, I still felt like that “skinny, ginger, goofy bitch"
My jaw fixed, my braces off, the next stage – moving away to university – should have been simple. Although heartbroken to leave my first love behind, I was excited to embark on an adult life, where no one knew me. But my reinvention wasn’t to last. Overwhelmed by my new surroundings, I quickly started to unravel. I felt intellectually intimidated, socially awkward, out of my depth. Clearly, my newfound confidence was only skin deep; underneath, and away from my comfort zone, I still felt like that “skinny, ginger, goofy bitch”. I figured that must be how others saw me, too.
I left after three years with a decent degree, a handful of friends for life and a lot of memories I wish I could forget. I fell into a pattern of one-night stands and told myself it was fine, because I was single and it made me feel powerful that I could walk into a room and men would find me attractive. Going from being insulted in the street to being approached by a model agency or asked out by a complete stranger has a confusing, intoxicating impact on a person. The smile I had once concealed for fear of ridicule became what people were most interested in. But I was kidding myself. I was insecure and craved affection; there was nothing truly liberating about seeking validation through my looks.
Now in my 30s, with an established career and in a long-term relationship, I’ve never regretted having the dental treatment; I just wish I hadn’t pinned everything on it. It gave me an entirely skewed perspective that “pulled me off my balance” through my teens and twenties, just as my English teacher (and Philip Larkin) had predicted.
These days, looking back on those years of anxiety, I can’t think of better words to live by than those lines from Larkin’s Born Yesterday:
“May you be dull – if that is what a skilled, vigilant, flexible, unemphasised, enthralled catching of happiness is called.”
By Martha Heyes
This article first appeared in The Guardian.