The Nail Biter’s Manifesto

elle-fanning-by-steven-pan

Do I love that I bite my nails? No. Do I sometimes wear press-ons because I get self-conscious about my fingertips? Yep. Have I bitten my way through polishes, deterrents, and all manner of product designed to keep me “off” my hands like I'm the human equivalent of a particularly ill-behaved Pomeranian who keeps climbing up on the couch? Oh, for sure. In fact, I could spend the next several hundred words teaching you cessation tricks—keep your nails painted, use Barielle's horrifically foul topcoat, tape them up, chew gum. But honestly? Anyone can try to make you feel bad about it (hi, Mom!). At this point, truly, the most useful thing I can probably do for you is just tell you to stop beating yourself up about a habit that's only remarkable because other people can see it and assume it's a mark of anxiety. That doesn't make you feel any better? Me either. But consider the following:

For some people, yes, nail biting is a flashing neon sign that says “I’m a jittery mess; no one look at me. I SAID DON’T LOOK AT MY FACE.” But if you’re nervous, stressed, miserable, or maybe just want to scream and cry and generally act like a sad version of Animal from The Muppets, it can also make you feel better. Nail-biting might be self destructive, but only the teensiest bit. Also, sometimes you are bored. Sometimes your nails look particularly bitable. Sometimes, Michael tells you not to and you just really want to spite him. These are all excellent reasons.

For something so minor and so common (almost half of us will be or have been biters), public reaction can be irritatingly overblown. Acquaintances, for example, have felt compelled to slap my hand out of my mouth, always under the auspices of “helping” me quit. Fun fact: slapping a semi-stranger is a super weird thing to do, because ASSAULT. Plus, it’s never like these pugilists are bad-behavior vigilantes who also go around swatting Ruffles bags out of peoples’ hands or disconnecting cable boxes so they can’t watch eight hours of Million Dollar Listing. What gives, hand-hitters? Why do you do this thing? It confuses me.

Maybe the problem is that messing with your nails is often framed as a vice instead of a coping mechanism. After all, it’s a lot more like a paper bag that helps people when they're hyperventilating than something indulgent or sinister. I don’t know, and I honestly don’t care much. But I do get tired—and am I alone in this, fellow nail biters?—of apologizing for behavior that has zero effect on anyone or anything besides my nail beds. It’s just a symptom of stress, and a relatively mild one at that.

So I am hereby owning it, and so should you. My dearest cuticle-irritating brethren, our time has come. Repeat after me: “I, (whatever your name is), sometimes bite my nails when I am worried, or tired, or maybe just notice that a free edge is a touch raggedy. And that’s OK. From now on, if someone has a problem with it, it’s just that: their problem.” Questions? Concerns? Comments?

—Lacey Gattis

Elle Fanning photographed by Steven Pan for Interview magazine.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Aubrey Green

    Loved the writing. I don't really care when someone bites their nails, but your hands are one of the dirtiest things and it must not be a good thing to be putting in your mouth...

    • ITGLacey

      I totally understand that line of thought, but interestingly, all the chronic biters I know are also frequent hand washers (there's been a lot of talk about how biting is a "grooming" related behavior, so being the kind of person who does both makes sense, I guess).

      • Aubrey Green

        That is very interesting, I guess keep on biting...(as long as you are washing your hands)

      • sophie brewster

        I am a chronic hand washer and nail biter. I back up this comment!

  • Stephanie McCurdy

    I have been a biter/picker since childhood. I especially agree with the habit being triggered by boredom or "a free edge is a touch raggedy." Totally! Point of interest: I can and do stop for long periods, at which point I can grow beautiful nails.

    One interesting thing I've noticed over the years is that nail biting/picking seems to be "contagious." If I'm in a meeting and going after a cuticle or hangnail, it's not unusual to notice another person or two start to do the same thing.

    • ITGLacey

      You are so right—if I see someone picking at her/his nails, I feel compelled to start doing it, too.

      I recently quit for almost 3 years & then fell off the wagon; it's one of those things that just doesn't go away, I think.

      • Pia Bergman

        It can go away to some extent. I used to be a bad chronic biter (and thumb sucker!)... and then I took the various precaution you mentioned in your article. Over time I stopped...except for the odd side of nail hang nail clean up. Otherwise my nails are their own worst enemy as they are naturally thin and peely. Can't have it all

      • mamavalveeta03

        That's my experience, too.

        • Hosannah

          I was a serial biter, mainly did it while I was watching tv. but once I got braces I couldn't bite them anymore and haven't had the desire to since. This may be the perfect solution but probably a bit on the expensive side....

  • http://b-tg.tumblr.com/ Colleen Garrity

    The hand-slapping thing is the most infuriating thing, especially since everyone has a habit that I'm sure others would find gross/annoying. As an ex-nailbiter (I just hit a wall this summer and stopped cold turkey and still have no real idea why) I have rarely been more mad than when a acquaintance/not-so-close friend thought it was appropriate to slap my hand and scold me like I was a toddler when we were eating as a group at a restaurant. Why would anyone think that was okay?

    • ITGLacey

      YES—thank you! Is that not the worst? It's so inexplicably rude.

      • MissWix

        I slap my husband's hand away, but you know, we're married. And for the record, he is NOT great with washing his hands.

    • Miss Y.

      To be honest, I would be majorly grossed out if I were at a restaurant (are you serious?) with a group of friends and one of them would start to bite/chew their nails. I see people doing it on the subway all the time too and for me it looks just as bad as someone picking their nose. Plus, what do your do with the nail bits you've just bitten off?

  • http://havingstuff.tumblr.com/ Katie

    I was a totally compulsive nail biter like since I first got teeth until I was 27 when I started getting acrylic nails and just couldn't any more. It never bothered me that people found it disgusting (I was real bad and it was so disgusting) but it bothered me when people were like, Why do you do that? Why don't you stop? I CAN'T!!! IT IS A CONSTANT INTERNAL STRUGGLE FOR ME AND I CAN'T! Anyway, all you nail biters, go get acrylic nails. They are the best and now I feel like a normal lady with normal, pretty hands. It has made me so happy and I no longer need to expend any energy on thinking about what a moral failure I am for biting my nails.

    • ITGLacey

      Katie, I completely sympathize. I also, though, have a terrible secret: I have bitten through acrylics. I'm not proud of it, & it only happened the one time, but yeah... *sighs*

      • http://havingstuff.tumblr.com/ Katie

        Ugh I have too. A couple times. If they break a little bit I can't help but go for it and then my nail lady is like, Are you some kind of rabid beast??!!?! Yes. But still, mostly it's fine.

      • mamavalveeta03

        You must have some STRONG chompers, Lacey!!

  • gregone

    Seconding Aubrey - Loving the writing!

  • Teri

    This article made me laugh and smile, although no matter how much you wash, you ARE putting germs in your mouth. Also, no matter how much you want to slap Cheetos out of someone's hands, that just isn't PC. Telling someone their hair, or nails look like garbage? Perfectly acceptable, I am afraid. :)

  • Nenuphare24

    I don't bite my nails but I related to this so much!
    I found the whole notion of nail-biting as a coping mechanism rather than a HUGE SIGN that you're anxious very interesting.
    Full disclosure because I wonder if anyone else has this problem: I've always compulsively played with my lashes since I was a baby (just prick/rub them against my fingers). I tend to do it both when I'm anxious and when I'm tired or bored (lashes feel so soothing against the pads of my fingers, idk) and because I AM a very anxious person, I always assumed that's what it was.
    Interestingly enough, people don't scold me for it, I think they regard it as something like playing with your hair. Also, it's a major hint that I am bored with whoever is talking to me so I try not to do it lest they realize it somehow LOL.
    It probably seems like I don't have to deal with the whole gross visible aspect with this type of habit but unfortunately I wear glasses and tons of mascara (it feels even better!) so at the end of a hard day, my lenses are a WRECK lol. I'm really bad at cleaning my glasses too so I walk around a lot with horrifically greasy, smudgy glasses and specks of black mascara on my cheeks - glamourous!
    Anyways, interesting read and really well written!

    • sashi

      I pull or rub mascara off my lashes too. It's so bad, for lashes, for eyes, contacts, everything. I tried to mascaras that don't come off, and get all stickey and spiky, but I still do it! And yes the dry mascara specks get everywhere. It's anxiety for sure. Thank goodness it's almost glove season, that should help a lot of people )

  • MissWix

    I was a voracious nail biter until I moved to New York. Nail Biting+Subway=CURED.

  • Laura

    I am an admitted nail biter. I've actually managed to stop for extended periods of time over the years, but I've been biting for about six years straight now.

    The interesting thing is, I'm not only grossed out when I catch myself doing it, but also when I see others biting their nails. Despite this grossness, however, I continue to bite my nails because I'm an anxiety-ridden person. And just as I've struggled mightily to get a handle on my anxiety problems, I've also struggled to stop biting my nails. So, telling me to, "Stop biting your nails!" is like telling me to, "Stop having your anxiety attacks!" Anyone who knows about anxiety attacks realizes that it's just not that simple.

    • mamavalveeta03

      If they don't do it, they don't get it, IMO. People need to develop more empathy. I'm SURE that we all have vices! For example, I don't smoke crack (like the mayor of Toronto), but I bite my nails.

  • EMR

    I don't find the sound of nailbiting that irritating but I HAD to chime in that I have a coworker that clips their nails in the cubicle. Whenever I get up to go find out who the FUCK it is I can never find them. It drives me bonkers.

  • sophie brewster

    No-one really bugs me when I bite my nails - it's a complete coping mechanism for me. I get real good stages where my nails are super long and gorgeous then I'm like 'ATTACK' and poof, gone. I never go too cray though, which is weird. I'm always 'must stop here.' At least I have control. ;)

  • sophie brewster

    Did you know that being irritated by noises someone makes is actually a brain disorder? Weird right? I think it's called Misophonia.

    • mamavalveeta03

      LMAO!!!!

  • Mimi

    Oh my gosh, that same thing happened to me! I was in 2nd grade and I'd heard about people who bite their nails, so I tried it. Then I became addicted to. I think it can be a real addiction. My nails are fairly long because I don't actually bite any off, just chew on them though. I really am trying to stop. I can't believe there is someone else who started in such a funny way.

  • mamavalveeta03

    AMEN, Lacey!! I have bitten my nail since 3rd grade (and I'm now 53). I have tried all of the above mentioned deterrents, and can say definitively, they don't work! Sometimes my habit is better, and sometimes, it's worse. But it is NEVER anyone else's business but mine. I have a teenaged daughter that bites her nails and I've told her, "Don't listen to anyone that gives you a hard time about it, cuz it just is what it is." I don't yell at nose pickers, or slap their hands, so they need to lay-off of us nail biters.

  • mamavalveeta03

    That works.

  • José

    Amen.

  • Mike

    I started biting my nails as an adult! But, the story is an odd one.

    My girlfriend had always bitten her nails to the point where they were about 3 to 5 millimeters in length. One day, when we were watching TV together, she was complaining about how she had "run out" of nails to bite and took my hand. I laughed but she was serious.

    She snuggled up in front of me so that the angle was right and went to town on them. By the time the movie was over both my hands had all of the white part gone. Needless to say, this became more frequent and she found my hands while in bed together, in the movies, and even (eventually) in front of friends (!). I let her do it, so I'm guilty, but I felt sorry for her.

    After a couple of years of this my nails were about half the length they used to be and shaped just like hers, only longer. Worse, they were uneven and that's when I started to bite them, to even them out. After 2 years of doing that it got so that I'd do it without thinking.

    So now her nails are a little longer, or at least less bitten looking, and my nails are disappearing!

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