"Dude, you need to fix your teeth." That's what Booth, one of my closest college friends — a no-nonsense fashion critic whose job it is to note the aesthetically nasty, whose nature it is to name it aloud — slurred at me late one night last year. Hideous, right?

Actually, I was thrilled. Seriously. (And not just because I was punch-drunk.) I was sick of dithering — worried that I was frivolously buying into some aging prom-queen vanity — over whether or not to get braces. This was objective confirmation, in all its gimlet-eyed harshness, that I was justified in plunking down more than two grand (insurance would cover the other $2000) on myself, when there was a voracious family in a starving economy to cater to.

Truth was, my smile had melted into the moue of a crazed jack-o'-lantern. Maybe it was all that smoking in my younger years; maybe it was all that breeding in my recent years; maybe it was simply crap genes. But in the year since I had last seen Booth, my teeth — the ramrod-straight soldiers that four years of adolescent orthodontia buys — had rebelled. The top row of chompers splayed mutinously, while the front two parted ways, leaving an empty chasm — more snaggletooth Shih Tzu than chic Lauren Hutton — in which my tongue once got stuck. Still, until that night, I mucked around in indecision. Was I being silly and superficial? This was new terrain: Beauty, for me, had never been some angsty, hard-won battle. I wore my looks easily, comfortably, mainly because I liked them. But suddenly I didn't feel pretty. I cringed at photos — then stopped taking them altogether. Silly or not, I was sick of rendering myself invisible.

Although the latest survey from the American Association of Orthodontists reports more than 1.1 million adults treated annually (a 33.5 percent increase from a decade ago), I was definitely the only latte drinker in the packed waiting room of the orthodontist my 13-year-old, neon-pink-rubber-banded babysitter recommended. Undeterred, I marched into his office and plunked down pre-splay photos: blissfully manic smiles at my wedding and openmouthed guffaws with my friends. The doc was incredulous. That was me just last year, I insisted. That is me.

The physical pain that April morning was nothing. (Then again, unlike most drama tweens, I had childbirth as a comparison.) After the good doc glued clear (though not invisible) ceramic brackets on my top teeth (old-school silver shiners covered the bottom), my husband grabbed me that night and playfully leered, "Wanna make out, braceface?" I mean, really, it was hilarious: 37 years old and slicing corn off the cob and avoiding egg salad and balling up bits of wax to cover the stabby intruders. Of course, it wasn't always funny. Take the day I played tennis with some fancy acquaintances at a local country club. One lame flub of the ball — which then careened into my face — and my whites bled red. Pride, shredded cheeks — it all hurt.

Six months in and with two months to go, I'm cool with it. Sure, I wear more eye makeup and less lipstick, and I absolutely miss red wine and curry and coffee-without-consequence (those clear rubber bands stain!). Flossing is a nightmare, as is hauling a toothbrush out and about (though not as bad as forgetting it, especially after a meal involving spinach).

Mostly, though, I just feel fortunate to be able to buy my way back to the pretty. As my orthodontist says, I have a big smile. I've missed it. You can't tell a proper dirty joke without one.

GRIN AND BARE IT: D.I.Y. DENTISTRY

"There's a backlash to that blinding Hollywood smile," says cosmetic dentist Dr. Marc Lowenberg. "People now want perfectly imperfect teeth: more translucent color, slight asymmetry, even a few minor chips." Here, the latest smile upgrades:

BRIGHTEN UP

PROBLEM: Stains and discoloration

FAST FIX: Pola+ (about $1200), an hour-long in-office treatment that doesn't require a light or laser (which can heighten sensitivity) to activate the peroxide in the gel.

STRAIGHT TALK

PROBLEM: Crooked teeth

FAST FIX: Veneers (about $1500 to $2200 a tooth) in custom-blended shades: "If your skin has cool undertones, it needs a cooler white shade; warm tones work best with warmer white," says NYC dentist Dr. Jennifer Jablow.

HIGH STREET

PROBLEM: Sagging cheeks

FAST FIX: Expanding the back segments of the upper teeth a few millimeters (with veneers or Invisalign tray braces) results in a mini face-lift, explains Jablow. "The wider bite creates a tighter scaffold for the lower third of the face, so skin drapes tighter."

Click here to go to YOU, BUT BETTERMarie Claire's 2009 Best Beauty Boosters.

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