I started out as a nail biter
and had been from as far back as I can remember having hands. It is sometimes a burden to remember being 9 months old, as I do, wearing a gingham dress and staring down at my mother's chest during a department store photo shoot
. I see that picture now and remember what it was to looking from within it, out into the world. Yet I do not remember when it was I started biting my nails. I know I began having to wear glasses in the 3rd grade
, so it must have been before then.
There are some pictures of me in high school and in college where, if you look closely at my hands, you would see short but evenly grown nails. I think I subconsciously didn't allow photos of me taken to include my hands. They were my ugly secret, my back bedroom sickly sister no one talked about. I would meticulously gnaw on them until they were practically bleeding, the tips of them throbbing like a heavy question: why are you doing this to yourself? Every moment I put my hands to my mouth and started spitting out pieces of nail as quietly as I could, I hated myself. I hated what I was doing and that I couldn't seem to stop, even when the pain was unbearable.
For other nail biters, the appearance and evidence of nail biting may not be as traumatic as it was for me. I always look down at my hands. I've been writing poems and journals since I was 9. When I had nothing else to look at during a test or a dull classroom discussion, when I had no friends or social interactions, I'd look down at my hands. They were and are my main way of exploring the world. I would pretend someone was holding them lovingly, playing out that first reach from an invisible boy, feeling my own fingers lacing into one another. And so, to see the deteriorated cuticles and raw hangnails just made me hate myself. How could anyone want to hold hands like these? They seemed useless to me. I couldn't pick off a price tag or even pop a zit. It's like trying to untie your shoes with socks on your hands. There was little I could do with my fingers with precision.
In high school I discovered a fidget's easy out: artificial nails. At that point, 1990 and in somewhat rural Maryland, fake nails were more the Lee Press On variety; they hadn't made the mainstream scene like they have now. I used to buy those press on nails just to imagine what it looked like to have long nails. It was my little fantasy, like dressing up as a princess might have been for other girls. At an even younger age I would slip paper clips onto my fingertips, since they around the same rounded shape, and tap the countertop with them like an actress, like some important and elegant woman. I never associated a woman with long nails as being a creature of supreme leisure as much as I admired her for her grace and demeanor. Having nails meant being more aware, more careful, than I was. I was pretty much a tom boy.
I finally began using artificial nails as a means to attain easy grace at an affordable price in college. I would look down at my hands and see something beautiful, these uniform length extensions of my fingers. They made my hands look slimmer, drawn out like a cord, more sinewy and less chunky. It made the few rings I wore more complimentary to my odd olive skin color. Every time I looked down at my hands now, I smiled to myself.
Fake nails came in handy when I went in to do my student teaching. I was getting certified to teach high school English and my training class were all 9th graders. I was 20 at the time, so I had to push an older look, since these kids were barely 6 years younger than me. I was encouraged to dress up more, to wear my glasses, to look older. Having long and well manicured nails also helped. It made me seem more in control, more graceful, and in this setting, I needed to be in as much control as my shaking self confidence would allow. It's amazing how a centimeter of acrylic can put just enough comfortable distance between you and your subjects.
Having fake nails has enabled me to be more animated. I gesture in conversation with wild abandon now, and I am not ashamed when I need to turn pages of a book in public. And I get compliments on them, usually from other women, on how nice they look and that they can't believe I paint them myself instead of having the Vietnamese guy who maintains them do it instead. I tell them I save 4 bucks every time I do it myself, but the real reason is that these nails are for my pleasure. I like painting them; they're like my little pets that I groom and ogle over. They are the one "girly" thing allowed at my job, or rather, the one aspect of being female that comes through the layers of uniform navy and body shop grime. When the guy at the salon is fixing a broken nail or performing his two week fill, I stare off at the big TV screen he has set up for people waiting their turn. I shut myself off from the experience until I can get home and sift through my wide array of colors like a woman staring at her closet for 15 minutes trying to find something to wear (this is seldom a problem for me, but it comes out in other ways). I have to debate what colors are acceptable at work. One of the first points of contention with upper management when I first got hired was my brazen display of bright green nails. Through that one detail, it became known that I was "from the Quarter" and so became easily dismissed as a Laura quirk. Even now, two years later, I still have watch my colors.
When I became a smoker, I at first saw that too as an extension of grace, of some dark and exotic mannerism. How many women I had seen smoking who also hand long, luxurious nails. They seemed to almost fit together in the things they implied on TV and in movies. And so, just as my career with fake nails began, my nicotine fetish soon followed. For 7 years they walked side by side and quickly became a pair of things people associated with me, and for the longest time I thought it was cool. 6 months ago I began seriously contemplating the physical deterioration I had been feeling as a result of my pack a day habit of clove cigarettes. I had developed minor sinus infections and began coughing up little green gobbies on a regular basis. Before I quit smoking, I joined a gym 6 months before, so it made quitting a little more expected, less terrifying, since I was setting myself on a path of self-improvement already and had lost 4 sizes from my waist. I cheated a lot on the outset, finding loopholes to keep the world thinking I had quit when I was really just on closet rebound. Every time I picked up a cigarette and looked down at half a pack of butts in my big amber glass ashtray, I hated myself for what I was doing, for being so weak. There were times both before I quit and when I was cheating after I quit that I would smoke and bite my nails in unison. Biting acrylic nails is even more self mutilating and a lot harder to disguise in public; I looked like a trapped animal trying to gnaw off its own foot.
Now that I've quit for keeps now and been long at it, I am a lot calmer at work and spend more time actually in my office (well, internet access also, sadly, keeps me inside, even though it is not a part of my job requirements). I've found I don't attempt to bite my fake nails as much as I used to. It only gets hard when I'm in my apartment late at night, as I usually am, writing or noding. I always associated writing with smoking, even though, truly they are quite difficult to do at the same time, whether you use a pen or a keyboard. When I feel an itching, I try to just look down at my hands, find the beauty there that makes me feel beautiful, and keep writing. I've gotten to be a fairly fast typist as a result.