Braces have become a massive fashion trend in Thailand and Indonesia in recent years. The bad news is that those innocent-looking pink Hello Kitty braces might actually kill you.
Weirdly, in Thailand, and increasingly in places like Indonesia and China, braces are becoming a huge teenage fashion statement. Which is pretty strange, considering in the West, Orthodontic braces are ruthlessly stigmatized and they’re pretty much a stand-in for adolescent awkwardness.
In Thailand and Indonesia, by contrast, braces are considered a sign of wealth, status, and generally being super-cute and stylish. The reasoning is fairly straightforward—genuine orthodontic braces are very expensive.
In Bangkok, for example, braces cost roughly $1200, a substantial sum in a country with a GDP of just over $5000 a year, so all the kids want to wear them, because anything worn by the young and rich is obviously really cute.
Earn the Star.
This positive perception of braces is no doubt partly due to the popularity of braces among young Thai and Indonesian celebrities like Thai pop singer Earn the Star and Indonesian heartthrob Andika Kangen.
Several Indonesian and Thai websites also appear to be littered with pictures of Gwen Stefani in her braces in the late 90s, which she recently confessed were a “fashion choice“.
After clicking on countless fashion braces blogs, and bearing witness to the sheer variety of colors and shapes available, I started to channel my 10-year-old self flipping out about all the cute, colorful jewelry at Claire’s Accessories in Glendale Mall, circa 1997.
I could even vaguely recall being jealous of the kids in my school who had braces, or crutches, and especially the ones with colorful casts for their broken arms, which everyone then drew on. Why didn’t I get to walk around all day with poorly drawn penises on my arm?
However, like any other popular commodity that is both really expensive and “really cute”, supply inevitably rises to meet demand and the market is now flooded with numerous knockoffs and fakes. In Indonesia, fake braces, also called “fashion braces”—kawat gigi untuk gaya—or “stirrups”—behel—will run you a mere $100.
And the best part about fashion braces is you don’t even need to see a medical professional. It is not uncommon for Indonesian beauty salons to offer the application of fashion braces as a treatment.
If even that seems like too much of a hassle, DIY kits can also be purchased from open-air stalls at local markets, as well as through many online retailers. On this site, you can choose between “flowers”, “kitty”, “power O”, or “Mickey”, as in Mouse. Another online retailer has even made a video montage advertising the vast array of possibilities fashion braces have to offer the trend-setting Thai tween.
Even legit braces have health risks, such as tooth decay and decalcification, gingivitis, mouth sores, soft tissue inflammation, and root resorption, but apparently the health risks of fashion braces go beyond even this list.
While a nice set of faux pink Hello Kitty braces might be super-cute, they can, according to the press and in the time-honored tradition of all teen crazes, also be super-deadly.
Fake braces have been linked to the deaths of two Thai teens. Apparently a pair of shoddy braces caused a 17-year-old in the northeast city of Khon Kaen to get a thyroid infection, which rapidly progressed to fatal heart failure, and in Chonburi police tied the death of a 14-year-old girl to braces purchased at an illegal open-air stall.
The response of the Thai government was to ban the importation, production, and sale of fashion braces completely. Selling fake braces is now punishable by up to six months in prison and carries a hefty fine of 50,000 baht—roughly $1300.
For importers and producers of fake braces, the punishment is anything up to a year in prison. Thailand’s Consumer Protection Board even says some of the wires in the fake braces seized in the raids contained lead.
Unsurprisingly, these measures seem to have only pushed things further underground, creating a sort of fake braces black market in which DIY kits continue to be sold both online and discretely at certain flea markets.
Fake braces have also come to be associated with a “scrappy motorbike subculture” known as dek wehn wehn, with dek being Thai for “kids”, while wehn wehn is apparently an onomatopoeia for the sound of a motorbike revving up.
While fashion braces remain legal in Indonesia, the trend is apparently no longer limited to tweens, with adults getting in on it now too. Some travelers have even noted that in certain hotels in Indonesia it would be difficult to locate a member of staff who doesn’t have a potentially lead-lined grin.
Written by Stephanie Malik