Live Through This

A Real Nail Biter

Turns out you don’t necessarily outgrow every flaw.

Illustration by Monica

Illustration by Monica

My longest-lasting habit is also my filthiest and most disgusting: I bite my nails. I do not just bite them—I chew on them. When my fingernails are gnawed to the quick, far down enough that the soft, fleshy bed underneath the nail is exposed, I sometimes start chewing on the cuticle around it. Occasionally I draw blood, or I feel a tight, sharp pain where the raw flesh presses against the ends of each jagged nail.

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t biting my nails, or when someone in my family wasn’t scolding me for it. I don’t think I was a nervous kid, but I did like to take time to think about things, and biting my nails was something to do during that time instead of sitting there like a lump, just staring into space. At least I could look like I was pondering deep, vexing thoughts. My grandmother tried everything. When I was really little, she told me that I would bite my fingers off entirely if I kept at it. She tried to slather my fingertips in some goopy, tar-like substance that was supposed to produce a Pavlovian reaction to its awfulness, but it sort of tasted like licorice, and I powered through each bitter layer. When I was a little older, my mom tried to shame me by saying I would never get a boyfriend with hands like mine, which produced the EXACT OPPOSITE of the intended effect. Good! I thought. I don’t want to hold hands with boys anyway. By the time I did want to hold hands with a boy, I had already spent a decade shoving my hands in my mouth every 10 minutes, and the habit was too intense for me to care what other people thought. It seemed unlikely I would get any action unless I found someone who thought the nubby skin where my nails used to grow was particularly appealing, or that anyone else would consider bulk containers of Band-Aids a super-romantic gift. I rarely used nail polish, and I didn’t see my first cuticle stick until I was 29 years old, when, at the urging of a friend I was visiting at the time, I got my first manicure. The aesthetician scowled at me the entire time. I don’t blame her, but her bad vibes certainly didn’t make me want to do it again.

Most people don’t find it difficult to avoid cannibalizing themselves, but I couldn’t seem to stop. Something about it feels good. Picking at my cuticles somehow makes it easier to think—it’s like my fingertips have a direct path to my brain. Of course, it’s also really gross: I ride the city bus, which is basically a festival of germs, every single day, and I still find myself absentmindedly chewing on my fingers after gripping the warm pole. A few years ago, I sort of resigned myself to having this one skeevish habit, figuring I’m a pretty stand-up lady in every other way: I don’t pick my nose, and at least I’m not one of those monsters who clip their nails on public transportation. This was a flaw I felt I could deal with, even if I was occasionally self-conscious about it. (Some people have no problem pointing out that you are being uncouth, like the time a grandma waiting in line behind me to see Toy Story 2 smacked my hand and told me it wasn’t “ladylike.”)

Then suddenly it seemed like everyone started getting really into nail art. My Tumblr feed was overloaded with pictures of Essie bottles and friends who detailed—down to the teeny, tiny brushstrokes—how they were getting such intricate designs on their nails at home. These were constant reminders of how I was voluntarily mangling my hands into mannish stumps. The designs looked so bright, colorful, and intricate that I wanted a constellation on every talon, too. Do you know how much I would love to turn my nails into tiny hot dogs or slices of pizza? I didn’t either, until everybody else started doing it. Before this surge in nail art, I felt like I just had a bad habit, but now I’m starting to feel painfully self-conscious, like everyone is ACTIVELY LOOKING at one another’s hands—they’ve leveled up, and not getting a manicure on the reg is making me the odd woman out. I’m exposing not just my anxiety but also my tardiness on cultural trends!

I’ve read a lot of advice about how to quit biting my nails, including dipping your hands in vinegar and hypnosis. But if you were still able to carry around a security blanket or your favorite childhood toy without fear of public scrutiny, you probably would, right? Biting my nails is a quick way for me to ease my stress and burn off some anxiety, not unlike the way people rub a smooth stone they’ve been carrying in their pocket for years or do really deep stretches after being hunched over a computer for hours. It makes me feel better, which makes it much harder to stop. Get ready to cringe, guys, but I feel a sense of accomplishment when I rip away a piece of nail that has been catching on my sweaters, or I chew off that wild cuticle along my thumb. It’s almost become a game: How much can I get rid of without actually physically hurting myself? I can occasionally avoid the habit for a week or two if I’m really busy with schoolwork or sleeping a lot. But having to be basically unconscious in order to refrain from something is not the same as trying to quit.

I sometimes wish that I knew how to fix my hands, or that I could resist the urge to damage them so carelessly, but every time I’m staring down the rack of Essie nail polish at the drugstore I seem to have a philosophical argument with myself: Are you really going to give it a proper go this time? Can you be a person who buys cuticle cream or knows how to use a nail block? In some ways, mainly out of a sense of social decency, I do want to stop. I often feel strange having such a visible marker of my inner emotional state. My husband notices when I amp up the picking and biting. Sometimes he placed his hands over mine while we’re watching TV to ask if I’m feeling stressed out about something.

Like all habits, nail biting takes some work to break. It’s probably not as hard as quitting a dependency on alcohol or cigarettes, but I’ve been doing it forever, and it eases me instantly. How do you just say goodbye to something like that? Maybe I don’t have to quit cold turkey, though—maybe the goal is to figure out how to deal with whatever inner disquiet makes me do it in the first place and deal with that, and then the nail biting will just magically go away. Then again, it’s been going strong for more than 30 years. Maybe I should accept that biting my nails is just part of me.

It’s hard to figure out which parts of you are mutable and which ones are set in stone. I’ve always thought that my personality would one day evolve enough that I would outgrow every flaw I have. But that’s not how it works—there are parts of you that no matter how much you dislike them, you will never really cure. The best you can hope for is just to accept them, and manage them. That is what I want for myself overall—the ability to accept my limitations and to deal with the vicissitudes of life without hurting myself, physically or emotionally. If I can figure out how to do that, a little nail-biting won’t seem so bad. ♦

36 Comments

  • Sophie ❤ June 18th, 2013 7:09 PM

    I don’t bite my nails, but this was still a great read! I have to say, I LOVED the illustration.

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • pobody June 18th, 2013 7:18 PM

    I’ve bitten my nails all my life and I found the perfect solution to those nail art yearnings: fake nails. You can buy them for cheap on ebay or get already cut and styled ones at the drugstore. The only downside I’ve found is I end up biting them off, but at least I can generally refrain from it when I’m out in public (if you think chewed cuticles are embarrassing, try nine perfect nails and one bunged up one sticking out like – well, a sore thumb). Depending on the style they can be a hassle if you’re texting or typing, but the satisfaction I get after finishing a particularly nice manicure and hiding my grotesque stubs is a really sweet indulgence. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop biting my nails, and fake ones can give me that extra boost of confidence when I need it.

  • Eryn June 18th, 2013 11:13 PM

    I love this article!!!

    http://fashionfledge.blogspot.ca/

  • connie June 18th, 2013 11:19 PM

    i bit my nails all my life until last year when i told myself i had to stop, and so i stopped all together. i haven’t bitten my nails since. i still put my hands in my mouth and on my face far too much – its an oral fixation – and no matter how hard i try i can’t quit that bit. i can stop the gnawing and the chewing but i cant fight the subconscious action of shoving my fingers in my mouth.

  • llamalina June 18th, 2013 11:21 PM

    this was a really fun and insightful read. i used to bite my nails horribly as a kid but i guess i kind of outgrew it. i still bite my nails really bad when i’m stressed; i totally agree that it’s almost kind of comforting.

    have you ever heard of freud’s theory of psychosexual development? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychosexual_development) basically during different stages of your life there is a part of the body that is emphasized and from birth to 1 year of age that part is the mouth; if something happens like you didn’t get breastfed enough, or you were breastfed too much, then it could result in a fixation on that part of the body, which would then result in certain habits like, for example, becoming a nail biter. i think most of it’s probably BS but it’s still pretty interesting.

  • leavingformars June 18th, 2013 11:56 PM

    I’ve bit my nails my entire life, so I could relate to every single part of this article. Especially the part about the aesthetician scowling at you during your first manicure. I recently started working at a nail salon (kind of ironic isn’t it?) and I feel really bad every time I realized I’ve lifted my hand unconsciously to my mouth to chew. It’s definitely something that calms my nerves and I’m not glad I do it, but I do always remember there are worse habits than biting your nails.
    Loved reading someone else’s point of view on this though. Great article!

  • AsheIsAUnicorn June 19th, 2013 12:05 AM

    I used to bite my nails too. After 20 years I finally kicked the habit by making a star chart. It sounds super kindergarteny, but every day I didn’t bite my nails I got a star and every day I did I got a big red x. Each week, I’d bite my nails less and less and when I made it though an entire week without biting them I rewarded myself. It ended up taking about 3 months for me to stop biting them all together. :)

  • Unicorn Heels June 19th, 2013 12:13 AM

    I haven’t bitten my nails for a long time, but the last paragraph really stuck with me. I wuvs it.

    <3 Unicorn

    http://bluejadepress.blogspot.com

  • poetess June 19th, 2013 12:24 AM

    I used to be really self-conscious about my nails (I pick/peel them), then I started dating a boy that bit his (which I actually found impressively honest, maybe because I felt like I was repressing my instincts).
    I still know it’s a bad habit, but it seems to matter less now. Which is nice.

  • nin9 June 19th, 2013 12:39 AM

    THANK YOU for this. i’ve been kind of excited that i only bite my thumb and pointer fingers now, and that i refrain from making my cuticles bleed…but it’s weird with the rest of my nails being long. been meaning to try fake nails on them.

  • wannabebotanist June 19th, 2013 12:52 AM

    Thank you for this article! I don’t bite my nails but I have been a Dermatillomaniac since around age 7, I am now 23. I have been picking and peeling at my finger tips so much so that I have distorted the very finger prints that identify me. Sometimes I pick my fingers so bad that it hurts just to write, text or even type.
    The line that got me the most was “I often feel strange having such a visible marker of my inner emotional state.” I pick to relieve anxiety, but the sight of my mangled fingers make me even more anxious, which cause me to pick even more out of pure anger towards myself. (I am picking my fingers even as we speak.) My picking isn’t limited to my fingers though. When I’m feeling really stressed, I have found myself spending up to 2 hours at a time standing in front of the bathroom mirror, as if in a trance, picking at every imperfection on my face, arms, or legs.
    I can relate to most everything you have expressed here, but in a Dermatillomania sense. So all in all I feel your pain. Hopefully one day we both will find ways to deal with our anxiety in less self destructive ways.

  • elleee June 19th, 2013 5:34 AM

    I can relate to this article so much! I have been biting my nails since forever and have tried to stop so many times but never last longer than a week…nice to know I’m not the only one!

    dreamers-collective.blogspot.com.au/

  • bluejaybee June 19th, 2013 6:18 AM

    i’ve bitten my nails all my life, and most of my family bite their nails too, i really loved this article because i related to it so much. I have shed most of my other childhood bad habits (sucking my thumb, picking my nose, think of any child-like bad habits i probably did it) but nail biting has just never been something i could stop doing, i’ve tried to stop but a few hours lat i’ll find myself chewing away at my pinky

  • AidaA June 19th, 2013 6:58 AM

    I used to bite my nails too. I had an oral fixation. So i’d bite everything like the straws from drink cartons, little bits of plastic and I used to suck my bottom lip in my sleep too. its weird about the breast feeding thingy cos I hated milk (still do) and cried when my mum tried to feed me. I stopped the biting when my mum told me that I’d get worms haha don’t know if it’s true or not but it scared me enough to stop.

    -Aida

    http://sunshinesuperwoman.blogspot.co.uk

  • HeartPlant June 19th, 2013 7:18 AM

    I used to bite my nails when I was younger… been through all the chemical stuff that tastes really disgusting. I replaced biting my nails with other things though and now I pick my skin, or self-harm instead of having a nibble. I hope that eventually I can stop these behaviours, although it probably won’t happen until I’ve sorted out the things that make me have those urges in the first place.

    • Danielle June 19th, 2013 9:34 AM

      If you are self-harming you should DEFINITELY talk to someone. Are you able to find help in your area?

    • Pipstar June 20th, 2013 1:35 PM

      I empathise with you a lot. A start chart or even a mental star chart can help with self harm. Once you get to a certain number of days it becomes easier to not self harm because of the number of days “clean” you have managed to accumulate.

      Not that i can really advise as i have replaced mine by eating terribly!

      Like Danielle said though, seek help in any way you can, its rubbish feeling that bad/anxious/sad and if theres any way anyone can help you feel happier, then that would be good.

      take care of yourself xxx

  • hellorose June 19th, 2013 12:05 PM

    I have to admit that by the second paragraph I was starting to bite at the skin around my nails. I never bit my nails as a kid, but the first summer I had serious exams I started to nibble. It’s never been particularly bad, but I am a chronic lip biter. (I’ve got a little scar from biting my lip as a child.) You’re right though, when bad habits like those are linked to anxiety it’s the anxiety that needs to be sorted, not the nail chewing/ skin picking/ lip biting. If only it were as easy as putting a nasty tasting nail polish on your feelings, or dunking them in vinegar!!

  • peppermint-winter June 19th, 2013 12:44 PM

    Interesting how some habits are socially acceptable and others are not. My habit is pushing down my cuticles, but instead of people scolding me for it, I just get told how lovely the moons of my nails are. Even though to me, they are clear evidence of stress.

  • GabbyCat June 19th, 2013 1:31 PM

    When I’m anxious or embarrassed or need to distract myself from something unpleasant, I pick/tear at the skin around my nails. It’s less of a habit and more of a coping mechanism, though. Funny that this article should be up now as I had never thought about trying to stop until like a day ago. Like, I know it’s kind of gross and painful, but it’s the best way I have to deal with stress because it’s always available and I don’t really want to stop sometimes. I completely relate to this article.

  • violingirl696 June 19th, 2013 1:54 PM

    I’ve been trying to stop biting my nails and finally did it this year! (I’m 17 now.) The thing that did it for me was a bit unusual– I was diagnosed with anxiety and got a short-term prescription for Xanax. Obviously that’s not something to mess around with, as it’s very addictive, but I took it for 2 weeks and it really helped with my stress. As soon as I started taking it, I noticed I wasn’t biting my nails. That was in April and I haven’t bit them since, even though I don’t take it anymore.

  • Yahel June 19th, 2013 2:50 PM

    A very interesting point of view on something that people prefer not to talk about. I’m familiar with this problem myself so thank you for making me feel like I’m not alone:)

  • allier June 19th, 2013 3:22 PM

    my brother used to bite his nails like craaaazy. the way we got him to stop was every week he would pick a nail not to bite (right pinkie, left middle, whatever) and when the week was up he would add another nail to not bite. It took a whooping ten weeks but now his nails are as unbitten as my grandma’s thanksgiving jello surprise.

    • Pipstar June 20th, 2013 1:25 PM

      “his nails are as unbitten as my grandma’s thanksgiving jello surprise.

      hahahahahahaha!! Poor Grandma ;) x

    • Blythe June 20th, 2013 4:18 PM

      Oh my god this was hilarious! I had to read it out loud to my family. :)

  • runningfilm June 19th, 2013 4:05 PM

    I never bite my nails because it freaks me out, but I’m completely guilty of biting my cuticles and the skin on the side of my nails. I agree- it’s just so satisfying to get all the dead hanging bits off! I’m not as bad about it as I have been in the past, and there are periods of months or weeks or days when it doesn’t happen at all, but once you do it ONE TIME that means there are the dead bits again and you have to get them off…

  • stellarbell June 19th, 2013 8:51 PM

    Great article! I used to bite my nails down to the quick, and sometimes they would hurt so bad I’d have trouble reading because I couldn’t turn the pages (and I LOVE reading, so that was pretty bad). Then I decided that instead of de-stressing by biting, I’d try to de-stress by painting my nails and taking care of them. Now I compulsively repaint my nails, which is probably less healthy because fumes, but at least people don’t make fun of my hands anymore!

  • forevernymph June 19th, 2013 10:50 PM

    This article resonated so much with me…down to almost every sentence. I only stopped biting in the last year. I started when I was super young and did it for over 14 years.

    I don’t really know how/why I stopped biting. I’d always wanted to, but I never could. I think it’s partially because I got another habit that could relieve stress and it’s constantly scratching at every imperfection on my skin (which is terrible, I know).

    Anyway, now I have incredibly long nails (they’re really strong and never break) and I can’t bring myself to cut them often, haha.

  • NotReallyChristian June 20th, 2013 6:34 AM

    I gave up biting my nails pretty easily when I was about 12 or 13, but frankly it was just the tip of the iceberg and the rest of it JUST WON’T go away. I pick my nose, pick scabs, squeeze spots, pick dry skin on my feet, pull off split ends, chew the skin on my lips – how I haven’t turned into one giant ball of scab I have no idea. It’s gross, but just SO satisfying! I once had a scab on the same area for a year and a half because I kept picking it off … yup.

  • girlw_nickname June 20th, 2013 9:51 AM

    Whenever I try to “quit” biting my nails, I keep up my willpower for a few days and then go absolutely berserk and bite off any new growth that has occurred. I have tried the bad-tasting nail polish, which worked for my formerly nail-biting boyfriend, but that stuff is just an extra reminder not to bite. You have to have the willpower, too. A really bad biter like me will just learn to ignore it! I go back and forth between wanting to stop and accepting that this habit is a part of my life.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I feel like most people think that nail-biting is something you just stop doing when you grow up, or that it’s only something you do when you’re nervous, or that it means you just chew on one gnarly spot. I don’t relate to that at all. It would take lots of work, but maybe one day I will get past this one gross habit. Then all I have to sort out is the others :)

  • AnoHana June 20th, 2013 4:34 PM

    My problem is the exact opposite: I love painting my nails and my budget is suffering from all those lovely Essie colours. ^.^

  • EveyMarrie June 20th, 2013 9:01 PM

    This is my everything. I’ve been biting my nails since birth and I’ve only recently started semi-growing them (i.e., I work so long that they start to grow out because I’m too busy to notice). But then I notice them and chew them. Right now, I’m trying to deter the nail biting habit with nailpolish. If all I see is paint, I won’t notice that amazing white line of nail waiting for me to rip off.

    It really is a mix of habit and pleasure. Whenever someone tells me ‘no,’ I say yes. Then I feel satisfied when I rip off that piece of nail. Like today, I was messing with the nail and I ‘technically’ broke it (aka, bent it enough that it was slightly noticeable tear) and eagerly went, “Well, guess it has to go! *chews and rips*”

    Honestly, I don’t think I’m ever going to stop, but I’m going to keep trying. Maybe one day I can get my nails past the tips of my fingers. Maybe.

  • Hollis June 21st, 2013 8:01 PM

    I think I have finally kicked the habit and my secret is…*drum roll please* nail files. Seriously, whenever you feel the urge of find your fingers in your moth stop it and file them instead; it keeps you active and clears up any rough edges that increase the desire to bite or pick. I’ve found that although I still do slip up its not a habit anymore, rather isolated incidents. After a while your nails become so pretty that you don’t want to bite them.

  • Anonamoose July 10th, 2013 12:51 AM

    I really enjoyed reading this article! I can relate to the way that you chew your nails because I have obsessively picking my face for years, despite some concerned family members discouraging me from my ” bad habit “. It turns out that my face picking is actually due to a mental illness called dermatillomania or obsessive skin picking disorder. I am not at all saying that you have this illness but I think that it is worth checking into, especially because there have been some cases of people obsessively picking the skin around their nails.

  • DanielleRosni September 7th, 2013 1:46 AM

    This article almost perfectly depicts my relationship with my nails. I’ve been biting them for so long and it’s always been just a natural habit for me. It’s not rare for me to bite so much off that my nails bleed or become painful, but I’ve yet to find a way to stop. I’ve tried different bad-tasting coats that have worked short amounts of time, but they’ve never lasted long. I think my habit has something to with anxiety or boredom. Whenever I’m nervous or even just particularly idle, I bite. If I have something to distract me enough though, (like chewing ice or biting pen caps) I can sometimes avoid it but because my nails are always there, this habit is my go-to.

  • IrrepressibleSpirit September 19th, 2013 10:51 PM

    I have bitten my nails all my life as well, I am 18 and don’t think I will ever be able to stop. My mum has also been biting her nails since she was young. I love this article! especially the last bits of it. There is a degree of self consciousness when someone verbally comments or points it out in front of other people. As i am coming to be an adult I have realized that this idea of acceptance of our flaws really does play true to our own identities and who we decide to be or how we decide to carry ourselves. Thanks for this wonderful article:)