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The beauty habit I *finally* broke—how life in lockdown taught me to stop nibbling my nails


image: @iramshelton

When I sat down at my laptop to start writing this piece, my right thumb was actively bleeding and my left thumb, recently quite raw, was starting to heal. Both injuries were self-inflicted: I've been biting my nails and ripping my cuticles since I was a kid.

And despite the immediate, sharp pain or the dull agony afterward (or the potential embarrassment of bleeding all over myself in public—it's happened!), it's unlikely I'll simply just stop biting.

I'll wrap preventative bandages around my thumbs to guard them, slap my wrist with a rubber band (I do not recommend this) and try lots of other assorted (often ill-advised) ideas for breaking harmful habits...but I'll continue to struggle.

Unless I paint my nails.

I've been here before, you see, and the answer is easy: Just give me a fresh, professional manicure and I'd immediately morph from a nervous nail-biter into my much more polished, pulled-together persona. With gel on my fingertips, I was unstoppable: Wearing some cool, unexpected color (powdery periwinkle, please!), I'd gesture emphatically with my hands while telling a story or making a point.

I'd shell out my cash like clockwork, every two weeks, for a fresh coat of paint that would keep my finger-chomping in check. And I'd act like it's no big deal when I got a compliment on my hyper sparkly, high shine cerulean gel nail art—but secretly I was beaming inside because good nails are my thing and I always have a major mani and it doesn't matter if I'm wearing zero makeup with my hair a total mess because at least a part of me is perfect.

But the truth is that every time I stop polishing my nails, for whatever random reason at the time, I immediately return to the habit that's haunted me for most of my life.

Quarantine, of course, has been no exception. When I settled into my new COVID-era existence, I also bid an abrupt adieu to some of the people and practices that helped me feel my best: the hairstylist who kept my blonde bright, the spin class that helped soothe my stress, the nail technician who knew I always took an *absurd* amount of time to pick my color but probably didn't know how meaningful that manicure really was for me.

You can probably guess how my cuticles have fared in quarantine, facing the perfect storm of increased anxiety and existential dread and mandated isolation and zero safe access to the one thing that'd really help them most: my humble mani.

But after months of staring at my naked nails—and really starting to appreciate (no, prefer) the way they look without a coat of color—I'm suddenly not so sure if I truly loved polish in the first place...or just feeling in control of my cuticles.

Would it ever be possible for me to maintain healthy, naked nails, without attacking them? As a person who can generally exercise reason and self-control, why couldn't I stop biting my fingers until they'd bleed? I spent a lot of time mulling this all over, and eventually it hit me: Maybe it all started at my first violin lesson.

I remember skipping into the music school, my chic string instrument in tow, ready to become a prodigy. I wore a plaid jumper (my school's uniform), my hair tucked nearly back in a black headband, with my nails freshly polished in a very subtle French manicure—a manicure that my mom had lovingly treated me to the night before.

It was our thing.

I wanted pretty nails like hers, and once I finally grew them out just long enough, we'd spend Sunday nights sitting at the kitchen table together—just the two of us, sipping chamomile tea past my bedtime, and she'd carefully paint my tips in the palest of pink or a nearly invisible nude. I loved it: the polish and the process.

So when I showed up to that first violin lesson and was told I'd have to cut my nails to the quick—they'd interfere with properly playing the strings, apparently—I was devastated.

I went home, cried, bit them all off and then never looked back. I kept up with my lessons and went on to perform a solo in the school's talent show, a moment that *still* to this day makes my mom proud.


image: @girlcodebeauty_

But could nixing my nails for violin be responsible for my horrible habit so many years later? I'm not an expert, so I called one. "Nail-biting is often a stress-relieving pattern," explained Jessica Kaplin, a psychotherapist in Towson, MD. "For you, it occurs during times of anxiety or excitement, but also when you're bored or inactive." (Being both anxious *and* bored really tracks right now.)

Kaplin explained that habits are a way our brains conserve effort. So while you might think of your only habits as things like saying "um" too frequently or scrolling though Insta whenever a commercial comes on, we actually rely on them all the time.

"Think about when you first learned to do something—like braid your hair or drive a car—and it took such intense concentration and intentional thought," explains Kaplin. "But after a while, all the habit you form around driving or braiding are what make them feel like second nature to you."

Bottom line? Apparently I bite my nails because I developed a longstanding behavioral and neurological habit that gets triggered when I am without polish and find myself anxious or deep in thought. (Me - polish + boredom = biting.) And while it's impossible to say whether it started with my violin debackle, that's the story I'll stick with.

So those times when I *was* wearing perfectly applied polish? I trained my brain to cope in another way. Painting my nails, but then not biting them, became its own habit: While I might be stressed or anxious while well-manicured, I'm able to leave my nails alone because that polish sends a signal like a stop sign.

Thinking about my biting as a learned mechanism was empowering. Once I understood that I don't have to be a nail-chomper—that it's not a life sentence, but just a lazy trick my brain picked up—I felt more confident that I could kick the habit (especially with Kaplin's advice for rewiring my brain).

My new plan? Every time I feel the urge to pick or chew my cuticles, I pause, take notice of what I'm doing and really observe how I feel. Then I take a deep, calming breath: For a mind-clearing exercise, I'll inhale through the nose for four seconds then slowly exhale with a hum for seven seconds—then repeat for one to three minutes if possible. It's not second nature quite yet, but it's getting easier—and with enough practice, I'll feel compelled to breathe instead of bit when something triggers my habit.


image: @byjenncabrera

I'm sure that one day in the future, when it's safe, I'll head back to the nail salon. (There's just so much good nail art on Instagram that I want to try.) And when I request a negative-space mani featuring bitty blooms, I'll know that I'm investing my time and money into my nails because I want to—not because I need to.

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this interview originally ran in our February/March 2021 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

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by Kelsey Haywood Lucas | 2/19/2021
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