What Nail Biting Taught Me About Self-Care

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

I’ve always been a nail-biter. My mother’s constant refrain was “No te comes las uñas!” Don’t eat your nails. She was always slapping my hand away from my mouth, chastising me for not being “una niña fina,” a sophisticated girl. 

I lacked little growing up, and yet, I was innately anxious. From an early age, I can recall staying up all night worrying about my family, our home, and money. Perhaps these anxieties stemmed from hearing stories about my mother’s difficult upbringing as a Cuban immigrant to this country at the age of nine. Or perhaps I was simply born that way, with an overwhelming amount of nervous energy.

Nevertheless, I channeled all of this energy into gnawing on my nails. I’d bite them down to the quick, often ripping my cuticles off, leaving my nail beds raw and bleeding. 

My family tried different tactics to get me to quit this nasty habit. My grandfather showed me pictures of parasites that I would pick up on my hands and transmit to my body when I put my fingers in my mouth. That got me to stop for a while; the thought of tiny white worms living inside my body horrified me. But pretty soon I was back on the wagon. 

My mother painted my nails with a terrible tasting product, but I didn’t let this get in my way. The taste wasn’t all that bad, I reasoned, as I chewed off the peppery polish. 

An aunt gave me a dainty nail care set with everything I needed to trim, file, scrape, buff, and shine. Another aunt gave me a set of rainbow-colored nail polishes. I gave it a try once or twice but quickly lost interest when I realized that I wasn’t capable of giving myself a decent manicure; the nail polish got everywhere, and my hands looked like they’d been painted by a wildcat. 

After a while, they all lost hope that I would stop biting my nails, and frankly, so did I. 

It’s not that I didn’t want to have long, pretty nails. I did, more than anything. I envied my friends with their naturally beautiful nail shape and solid white tips. The sound of long nails drumming on a table or clicking on computer keys was music to my ears. My mother’s secretary always had her nails painted fire engine red to match her lipstick, and I wanted to be just like her so I could flutter my hands around and wow everyone with my perfect shiny nails. 

Getting a manicure every week or two no longer seems frivolous to me. In fact, I’ve grown to the love the ritual.

It seemed so effortless, the way these women were able to grow their nails out. But somehow, I couldn’t figure out their secret.

My mother’s cousins maintain a level of vanity that was looked down upon in my nuclear family. They were always going to the salon to get their hair colored and styled. Their nails were always perfectly long and perfectly fake. Such is the way of life in Miami, the image-addicted city where I grew up. 

My parents promoted a much more practical lifestyle for my sister and me, one that didn’t involve wasting money on such frivolous things as hair perms, designer clothes, and acrylic nails. We got our hair cut at Supercuts, and nail polish wasn’t allowed. As far as I know, my mother has never had a spa day, and I’ve never known her to get her nails done, except on her wedding day.


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In my late twenties, I started a graduate program in which I was to teach undergraduate level writing classes as part of my fellowship. After many years of vagabonding and seasonal farm work, I viewed this as my beginning of adulthood. I was going to be teaching at a university—and the thought terrified me. These college students who were not that much younger than me were going to see right through me, smell my fear, and eat me alive. 

I looked at my scrappy nails and saw the hands of a child, of someone who didn’t have the discipline to be “Una Mujer fina” — a sophisticated woman. 

I didn’t necessarily need to be super sophisticated, but I decided that my new adult self could not—would not!—be a nail-biter.

So how was I able to end my decades-long habit? I finally gave my hands the love and attention they deserved. I made weekly appointments at a small nail salon across the street from the bowling alley, and this constant upkeep allowed me to grow my nails out for the very first time. Even when they were still short, the manicure made my nails look pretty and well take care of. It was an investment in both time and money, which is a big deal for somehow like me who shops at the secondhand store and would rather have a friend chop my hair than pay for a proper haircut. But it was well worth it. 

Getting a manicure every week or two no longer seems frivolous to me. In fact, I’ve grown to the love the ritual. Not only is it beautifying, but it’s also relaxing. This time that cannot be spent doing anything else—checking emails, making phone calls, reading. Although my hands are constantly on the move, typing or punctuating my sentences, I’m grateful for this rare moment when they must be still. During a manicure, my hands are literally in someone else’s hands. The manicurist massages lotion into my skin, pressing the anxiety out of my muscles and ligaments. They shape my nail and clean my cuticles. Carefully, they apply one coat of paint, then another, and finally, a last one to seal the deal. My hands receive more care during that half hour than they do at any other time during my life, and the investment seems worthwhile.

I love my strong, long, and colorful nails, and I can finally make the tapping sound that I always longed for as a child.

While I’ve overcome the habit of always having my fingers in my mouth, the muscle memory remains. A hangnail or a traffic jam can lead me right back to that old routine. I usually have one nail per hand that I can’t keep long. My pointer finger, for example, is always shorter than the other nails. That’s the one I tend to return to during those traffic jams. But that’s okay. I don’t need perfection. Keeping my nails healthy and beautiful is something I do for myself, and it brings me pleasure.


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