I have no memory of seeing my nails unbitten. For the last 28-ish years, my jagged little fingernails were my life’s work; I dedicated time into making my fingers look like shit. And though you might say I was born to be a nail biter, I don’t believe in fate. My nails were hopeless, until they weren’t.
When I decided to take action, I became the experiment, living the scientific method as learned in 4th grade. And the experiment lasted for decades. If you love nothing more than to sit in front of an episode of Below Deck and gnaw on those fingers, by all means live free or die hard. But if you want to break the habit, maybe my story will help.
What Didn’t Work
Scare Tactics: My mother and Nana tried to help by telling me extremely gross and sometimes scary stories about what would happen if I kept biting—urban legends weaponized to break the habit that, in the end, turned out to be true. They said that if I bit my nails enough, I would get worms in my stomach. (True, though I never had intestinal worms…that we know of). Perhaps I would get a horrible disease from the germs under my nails. (I would!) I would never get a girlfriend if my nails looked like that—ultimately true (gay)! I was terrified. Nevertheless, I persisted.
Flavored Nail Polish: Everyone’s go-to advice is usually “Have you tried that nail stuff that tastes bad?” And I would respond, “YES OF COURSE I HAVE.” Not only did I try it, but I went through the full tasting menu: Stop’n Grow, Mavala Stop, Nibble No More, Nobite. Some tasted extremely spicy, some like bitter dish soap, and one in particular, my favorite, tasted distinctly like the bubble gum-flavored goo they use to take mouth impressions before you get braces. None of them could phase me, and before I knew it, I was a sommelier of paint-on nail biting inhibitors.
Conditioning: You know the rubber band trick, right? I kept a rubber band on my wrist so every time I went to bite, I would snap it instead, and eventually associate the sharp pain with my biting instincts. Was it masochistic? Maybe. Was it hypnotism? In a way, except much cheaper. Did I actually snap it regularly? Obviously not. It hurt like hell and I’m not a stupid idiot.
Public Shame: Self-shaming was the straw I thought would break the camel’s back. I moved to New York and started riding the subway, where I wrapped my hands around the pole to put my nails on full display. At times when the subway was crowded, several pairs of eyes would laser-focus on my nails and their disgust was palpable—it was the pinnacle of my nail shame. That’s when I created an Instagram account to post photos of my nails every few days so all my friends could see. I was essentially cyber-bullying myself. They say it takes 20 days to break a habit, and of course I only lasted 18 days. Whether or not there is any truth to the 20-day rule, we’ll never know.
Many years passed because I simply gave up—I didn’t have what it took to break the habit. I accepted the bitter truth that my hands would remain this way until the end of time. I would always be someone who looked down and thought, “Well, I made this bed and now I will sleep in it.”
What Did Work
This is where it gets exciting.
Two and a half months ago, I was on the couch watching Below Deck when my roommate pranced over with her nail kit and began her weekly nail ritual. It was a balletic ceremony of perfectionism—every move was so sublime. I was particularly floored by a stack of cute little symbols and flowers, which she told me were intricate nail tattoos. There were incredible, ethereal looking flowers and butterflies, but for me, the portraits took the cake. Vermeer, da Vinci, Monet—she had the Louvre literally at her fingertips. The set came with tweezers so she could artfully place each in the perfect position, and one top coat swipe kept the tattoos in place for about a week. It might sound silly, but it felt like a veil was lifted from my eyes. My nails weren’t a burden, they weren’t shameful—my jagged little nubs were a creative opportunity. That is the moment I stopped biting.
Under the tutelage of my nail muse/roommate I, too, grew to love the theater of nail maintenance. I started regularly filing and buffing; I picked up a calming chamomile oil from Buly for my cuticles, though I also love moisturizing my hands with leftover olive oil after I cook. Now that I have the benefit of two and a half fruitful months of maturity and hindsight, I realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a casual biter, a skin-around-the-nail biter, or a chronic biter like me. I now see my nails for exactly what they are and always have been: A CHANCE TO GROW.
Photos via the author